UC system is shortchanging low-wage contract workers

As the Assembly convened hearings on how best to prevent the University of California from sticking its students with another tuition hike, several students spoke about the growing number of UC students who are not able to afford food.

Afterward, we were alarmed by how surprised UC administrators – notably President Janet Napolitano – were to learn that such a problem existed. Thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature, the tuition crisis has been averted for now. UC has even launched a new food security initiative.

However, the ignorance of the UC president’s office about the most vulnerable members of our campus communities goes on. A case in point is the plight of the university’s growing army of contract workers.

According to UC, there are “many thousands” of such workers, overwhelmingly immigrants, women and people of color. Each is employed by private firms that pay rock-bottom wages with few, if any benefits. Many rely on Medi-Cal, food stamps and unscrupulous payday lenders just to get by. Many more face workplace abuses, including unsafe conditions, harassment and outright wage theft. And their employers – under contract with UC – profit by keeping it that way.

Often called “temporary” workers, some of these employees are spending years, even decades, toiling at UC for as much as 53 percent lower wages than UC employees doing the same jobs. In fact, 51 contracted workers with more than 440 years of combined UC experience banded together at UC Berkeley to demand that administrators bring them in-house.

In opposing state Sen. Ricardo Lara’s Equal Pay for Equal Work measure (Senate Bill 376), UC administrators are doubling down and claiming that their recently enacted minimum wage increase somehow solves the problem. It doesn’t come close. First, the minimum wage fails to meet the standard of equal pay for equal work. Instead, it condemns thousands of people to permanent, second-class status and a life of poverty.

It’s also worth noting that the day after UC’s minimum wage was introduced, 15 of the highest paid administrators – some earning almost $1 million in base salary every year – were granted yet another pay raise by UC regents. One week later came reports that UC paid former President Mark Yudof more than $500,000 for not working.

UC’s suggestion that equal pay for contractors is somehow cost-prohibitive does not even begin to pass the smell test. The truth is – as with food-insecure students – UC knows very little about its contractors.

While spending its supposedly scarce resources lobbying against equal pay, UC has also unveiled a new hotline that contract workers can supposedly call to report abuses. Ironically, that hotline has also been contracted out to a call center in North Carolina, which doesn’t even pay its operators the $15 minimum wage UC just enacted.

You cannot make this stuff up. But Gov. Jerry Brown can make it right. SB 376, which would finally end UC’s exploitation of low-wage contract workers, is in his hands. Signing it will pull hundreds of Californians out of poverty and off the Medi-Cal rolls.

The status quo only enables its contractors to continue profiting from poverty, with taxpayer funds and student tuition dollars. I urge the governor to stand up to the second-class treatment of contract workers.

Bulmaro Vicente is an Associated Students of University of California senator at UC Berkeley.