Open Letter about Harvard-HUCTW Negotiations
Dear Harvard Community Member,
As you likely saw last week, Harvard Vice President for HR, Manuel Cuevas-Trisán released a statement on behalf of University administrators regarding Harvard-HUCTW negotiations around pay increases for our 5,000 members. As the letter suggests, the parties have made good progress in some important policy areas, but remain too far apart to reach agreement yet on a pay increase program. We have had positive discussions with University leaders towards reaching an agreement in recent weeks so we were disappointed to see the University’s letter to the community on Friday. Although we had not planned on sending out an open letter, we feel the need to respond to statements made in the University’s communication.
As the letter implies, high inflation, and its impact on HUCTW members, has been a significant discussion point in these negotiations. Due to historically high price increases in rent, childcare, utilities, food, and other essential costs, HUCTW members have been experiencing real financial precarity—with many going into serious debt, drawing on retirement savings, or being forced into unstable housing situations in order to continue to afford their basic monthly expenses. Members have gone 18 months without any inflationary relief since our last salary increase in October 2021, with inflation reaching historic highs during that time (three times higher than the inflation rates of the last decade).
Impact of Inflation on Harvard Staff
In Cuevas-Trisán’s letter, Harvard administrators state that their latest salary increase offer seeks “to address ongoing concerns about the impact of inflation, which since March continues to trend down.” While it’s true that inflation rates are slowing, that doesn’t reduce or erase the price increases of the last two years. Although there will always be price spikes and drops around food shortages and fuel, in general once prices go up, they don’t go back down.
According to our most recent survey of members, rent typically eats up 45-55% of HUCTW members’ monthly pay. Median rent for 1 and 2 bedroom apartments in the Boston-area went up by 15% between April 2021 and April 2022. Although rent increases between 2022 and 2023 are closer to 8-9%, rent prices aren’t going down. Members still need raises that help them to cover cost increases for 2021 and 2022, which are now built into their monthly rent going forward. Any future rent increases, even if they are less drastic, will only compound the previous rent increases.
Many members have shared stories about experiencing financial instability, particularly around the rising price of rent, over the last two years:
- “At the end of each paycheck, I generally have nothing left after paying for my basic expenses. My rent increased by $300 a month last year, and now it’s going up another $200 a month this year. I just had to put off a needed dental surgery because I simply can’t afford it.”
- “My paycheck does not cover the basic costs of living right now. I’m a single mother and rent alone for the two of us eats up 50% of my salary. I’ve worked for Harvard for over 20 years, but these rising costs feel impossible and I’m going further into debt just to just keep up with basic expenses.”
- “My wife and I have gone from living at least somewhat comfortably prior to the pandemic to living paycheck to paycheck. If our rent is raised again, we will be forced to leave our home. I love working for Harvard in my current position, but if the financial insecurity we face continues, I might have to seek more lucrative employment.”
- “I spend over 50% of my monthly income on rent alone. I created a budget spreadsheet and most months I’m not saving a penny, I’m losing about $300 a month. Rent will only go up again when my lease is up in July. I won’t be able to afford to live in my apartment anymore. I will be forced to move or find a job with a new company who can provide the pay that matches the current [economic situation].”
Harvard’s Competitiveness with Other Employers
Harvard administrators have also asserted that the University’s wage offers—although significantly below the rate of inflation—are sufficient because they are competitive with or surpass other comparable employers. Yet when we examine the available market data for 2022, we see that Harvard’s 2022 offer of 4.5% falls below average for unionized employers nationwide, below average for private employers nationwide, and below average for private employers in the Boston-area.
Even if Harvard’s assertions about the market are true, is the fact that other employers don’t pay wages that keep up with the cost of living an ethically compelling reason for Harvard to do the same? Harvard President Lawrence Bacow has said that the role of universities is to “enable the American dream.” As such, Harvard goes above and beyond to ensure that tuition is affordable for all students, instead of just charging them “what the market will bear.” It’s a highly principled philosophy, but that same philosophy should apply to the hard-working staff who help to facilitate almost every aspect of Harvard students’ education.
Harvard’s Retention and Recruitment of Staff
In Cuevas-Trisán’s letter, he states that the “Harvard retention rate is currently and has historically exceeded the market, despite strong competition for talent in the Boston/Greater Boston market.”
While Harvard’s retention rate may be faring well against a struggling job market, staff continue to leave their jobs at a much faster rate than before the pandemic and the University continues to have significant difficulty filling positions. At any given time one can see 700 – 800 jobs posted on the University job site, when prior to the pandemic there were closer to 250 jobs posted at any given time. Numerous members indicate that jobs in their departments have sat vacant for months due to those departments’ inability to attract suitable candidates. Meanwhile, current staff cover for a great number of vacated positions, often with no additional compensation. Many members have indicated that they or their coworkers have left the University or begun looking for other positions outside of Harvard due to ongoing financial pressures:
- “My lab has lost fully half our staff over the past year, all of them citing financial pressure as the sole reason for leaving their jobs. We are receiving less than 1/10th the normal number of CVs for open positions. This has led to an increased workload for those like me who are tentatively trying to stay, in an already stressful time.”
- “I appreciate the stability of this job, but I am at the point where I can’t afford to stay in my neighborhood and keep working here. I am starting to look at other jobs in the private sector where the salaries are more responsive with what is happening with prices in Boston.”
- “We have all put so much of our time and effort to keep our department moving forward and deliver excellent and innovative content to the world during [the pandemic]…I have never been so overwhelmed yet proud of my work in my life…I know many are leaving their posts specifically due to financial reasons along with the inability to grow in this environment. I am asking, as a proud member of this community, to have our pay reflect [our efforts]…To not have to tread water until we sink.”
Recognition of Harvard Staff Efforts & Struggles
HUCTW staff help to facilitate admissions, financial aid, housing, student life, teaching, research, advising, commencement, and every single class taken at Harvard. We work in all of Harvard’s academic offices, labs, libraries, institutes, museums, theaters, health clinics, athletic centers, and residential houses—and over the past two years, we have been working harder than ever to ensure that students and faculty have the services, resources, and facilities they need to succeed.
Yet as we continue to go above and beyond for Harvard, more and more of us fall behind financially—struggling to pay for the rent, food, utilities, gas, and childcare we need to continue to work at the University and live in the greater-Boston area.
HUCTW members feel demoralized and disrespected when we hear University administrators publish statements that suggest the University’s position in the local labor market outweighs members’ ongoing, real-life concerns about financial instability.
One member cogently summed up that feeling when he wrote:
“I don’t understand why workers who helped [keep the University going] during the pandemic have to scratch and claw for a decent living. Why can’t the University just treat employees with decency, kindness, and compassion? Would it really be so terrible to reward workers instead of battling over every last dollar? Inflation is real. And it hurts. And the University is in a great position to say ‘We’ll help you. Let’s all get through this together.’ Instead, it feels like the record-breaking profits and the record-breaking endowment are meant for causes deemed more deserving than the actual people who work here.”
Giving us thanks and acknowledging the vital role we play in Harvard’s mission is genuinely appreciated, but those words begin to feel hollow if they aren’t followed up with the tangible recognition we need to survive and stay afloat.
The best way for University administrators to show their genuine appreciation and respect for hard-working Harvard staff is by agreeing to meaningful raises that allow us to keep up with inflation and carry out our important work for the University with dignity and security.