BRUNSWICK, Maine — A long campaign for higher wages by Bowdoin College’s housekeepers seemed to pay off this week. Citing “changing market conditions,” the college released a plan to raise the starting minimum wage for full-time hourly service workers to $17 per hour by July 1, 2022, with incremental increases over the next 32 months.
But those who lobbied for a raise say it’s not enough, doesn’t come soon enough and is beside the point.
“Isn’t it a joke?” Sandy Green said. “I almost walked out when I heard that.”
Green, 60, has been a housekeeper at Bowdoin for 11 years. Her crew of 54 full-time housekeepers cleans more than 100 buildings a day. She’s also a central figure in the Bowdoin Labor Alliance, a cohort of service staff, students and organizers who went public about housekeeping’s low pay in May of 2018 with a letter signed by 12 of the housekeeping crew.
The pay raise and ongoing clash represents the latest in a debate about the treatment of hourly workers at one of New England’s most prestigious private colleges — with an endowment of $1.74 billion — that tapped into broader themes of U.S. income inequality.
Green said she made $9.50 an hour when she started. Now it’s $13.65. When Bowdoin announced its 400 benefits-eligible hourly employees would be paid $14 an hour beginning in July, Green took issue. She reasoned that her experience should account for a higher wage than a cleaner just starting out. She negotiated an increase to $14.65 an hour, she said.
Tensions between cleaning staff and management have been long-running, and workers complain of strain and underappreciation, and feel that management rarely advocates for them. The Bowdoin Orient, a student-run newspaper, published articles and letters arguing that housekeepers’ work, which can involve heavy machinery and floor waxers, is often more like the work of custodians, who typically get paid more. (Custodians at nearby Brunswick and Mt. Ararat high schools, who are unionized, make $21.32 an hour.)
“It’s either get out of there or risk physical injury,” said Beth Icangelo, who gave her notice last week after four years in housekeeping. “I’m only 31 years old but that work is too hard for an able-bodied person. I don’t think I can picture a single housekeeper at Bowdoin who walks straight.”
College officials seem genuinely confused that criticisms have persisted, as though a few vocal malcontents are drowning out the rest. When 25 to 30 percent of a group — particularly non-unionized low-income workers — are vocally upset enough to speak up, it can often mean that more in the group are afraid to, according to Bowdoin history professor Dallas Denery.
The school later published responses detailing the compensation package for hourly employees. Housekeepers at Bowdoin make an average of $15.11 an hour, according to the school, but that figure doesn’t include a benefits package valued at an additional $19,000 a year per hourly employee working more than 20 hours per week, or more than $9.00 an hour.
The wage hike is a result of market conditions, said Matt Orlando, the college’s senior vice president of finance and administration. Roughly 20 percent of Bowdoin’s hourly staff will reach social security eligibility age within the next couple of years, and the state’s labor shortage is exacerbated in the midcoast, where Bath Iron Works has pledged to hire 2,000 new workers in 2019 and expects nearly 1,000 more to retire soon after.
But the Bowdoin Labor Alliance takes credit for the increase even as school officials don’t officially acknowledge them. They said $17 an hour might not cover Brunswick’s cost of living three years down the road, where home values have risen from an average of $180,000 in October 2014 to $286,000 in October 2019, according to Zillow.
“It’s really public pressure and collective action that’s pushing them to change the compensation program, not the market,” said Diego Grossmann, a senior at Bowdoin and organizer with the Bowdoin Labor Alliance.
Market rate or otherwise, those wages don’t go very far. The living wage for Cumberland County, calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is $13.13 for an adult with no children. For two working adults and one child, it’s $14.34. The National Low Income Housing Coalition says the hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom in Cumberland County is $20.56. In Brunswick’s adjacent Sagadahoc County, it’s $18.81.
Despite their frustrations, facilities workers “have a lot of faith” in Orlando and the school’s financial department, and that the issue is bigger than what Bowdoin can tackle.
“The real problem is massive income inequality,” Denery said.
“When you use market rate as your standard for the common good, you’re basing it on a wage that already has baked into it the very inequity that people are complaining about,” Denery said. “When people who work for you have to go to the food bank to get groceries, that’s a problem for a place that brands itself as an ethically motivated place.”