UK denies campus union’s claim that their efforts connected to pay increase


Members of United Campus Workers, a union chapter, march on UK’s campus towards the Main Building in demand of healthcare and hazard pay on Nov. 12, 2020. UCW has been vocal about concerns with COVID-19 criticisms. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Sarah Michels

A little over a week after United Campus Workers staged a march calling for hazard pay on UK’s campus, several grounds workers have been told they are receiving a “base salary equity adjustment.” 

The pay increase, $1 per hour, will go into effect Nov. 27, according to a UCW press release. Affected grounds workers were notified of this change Nov. 20 through a standard equity adjustment letter, said UK spokesperson Jay Blanton in an email. 

Several of the union’s members said they think the base salary equity adjustment was related to their Nov. 12 march. During their demonstration, they asked for a $2 hazard pay, in addition to free, continuous COVID testing, the option to work remotely, as well as several other demands included in a Kernel article. Their press release stated that “workers expressed excitement that their collective action resulted in another victory for their union, United Campus Workers of Kentucky.”

“It’s very clear that they heard our demands and are trying to meet them in some way,” said Matt Heil, UK law library circulation manager. “I mean it’s not exactly what we asked for, but it is something. And that, you know, they need to, they need to do something to keep us from causing a ruckus and drawing more attention to the inequalities that are on this campus.”

However, Blanton said that UCW’s claim that the equity adjustment is related to their group’s demonstrations is “categorically false.” He said that the pay increase has nothing to do with UCW at all, but rather its purpose is to be consistent with “longstanding hiring and compensation practices.”  

The 15 grounds workers who are affected by the equity adjustment only received a pay increase because UK recently hired a temporary employee full time, at $15.35 an hour, said Blanton. These staff members were awarded a $1 base pay increase to ensure equity among all the UK employees who share the same job classification as the new temporary worker. 

One UCW representative, sociology graduate worker Julia Miller, questioned Blanton’s reasoning on behalf of the union.  

“I am not surprised that that is the message they’re putting out. But it is a little bit confusing,” Miller said. “We have had multiple times where workers have taken action, and then something changes. Never attributed to us, of course, by the administration, but when we do things, things happen.”

Miller cited the following as examples:

  • UCW members published an open letter in May calling for administrators to take a pay cut. Despite announcing publicly that no high-level administrators would do so a few weeks earlier, two days after the union’s call-in day, UK President Eli Capilouto announced a 10% pay reduction for the 2020-21 school year. 
  • Originally, free COVID testing was exclusively available to UK students. Miller said UCW was informed in a meeting that there would be no asymptomatic testing offered to faculty and staff; they would have to use their insurance or pay out of pocket. However, the same day that UCW did a call-in day concerning this issue, Capilouto announced that UK would offer asymptomatic testing to campus workers. 
  • Grounds workers have been quoted in Inside Higher Ed articles that have received attention twice in the past two months, and have spoken at UCW’s marches, and now some members of that department are getting a salary increase. Miller said that the day after the Nov. 12 march, some members were notified that they would be receiving a raise. 
  • UCW met with administrators to raise the issue of unaffordable graduate student healthcare, and afterwards, UK changed its policy so that students would not have to pay a lump sum to add a dependent to their health care plan.  

Another UCW worker and grounds worker, Pierre Smith, quoted in the press release, shared the same sentiment. 

“I’ve been working here for 16 years and making under $15 an hour that whole time,” Smith said. “Then we marched as a union and the day after I got a letter saying that I’d be making over $15 an hour. The march worked.”

Why would UK refuse to acknowledge the alleged connection between policy changes and UCW’s efforts? Miller said it would be admitting that they were in the wrong.

“I think they want to take credit for making the right decisions, even though it took pushing and time to get there,” Miller said. “They don’t want to seem like they are not in control and the ones coming up with the good ideas.”

UK grounds worker Scott Zurkuhlen was one of several UCW members who said that while this is a good first step, all grounds workers and UK front line workers deserve a similar pay increase. Zurkuhlen said he thinks the equity adjustment is a “great gesture” and that workers are happy about it, but that in-person staff should still receive hazard pay if they don’t have the option to work from home. 

“While I’m obviously pleased that anyone would be getting a raise, especially in these times,” Zurkuhlen said. “…there’s a lot more that needs to be done and it’s not really a formal acknowledgement that our level of exposure at the university is being acknowledged and compensated.”

Zurkuhlen said he knows custodians who are paid under $15 an hour, despite having worked for UK for upwards of 19 years. While UK has stated that the pay raise is unrelated to UCW, Zurkuhlen thinks that “would be a hell of a coincidence.” 

Blanton emphasized that it was, in fact, a coincidence, saying that equity adjustments across UK are “very common.” 

Heil said he is used to responses from UK’s public relations department that he feels “aren’t entirely honest” and would like the university to be more transparent, especially concerning COVID-19 campus safety. UCW’s press release stated that union workers are concerned about “being mandated against their wishes” to continue in-person work, both throughout the entire fall semester and especially after Gov. Beshear’s order for schools to go virtual by Monday, Nov. 23. 

“There’s definitely discontent,” Heil said. “It just feels like every safety thing that we could have done has been bypassed in order to serve PR. (UK President) Capilouto is going to make it to Thanksgiving, like you said at the beginning of the semester, no matter what, no matter what the issue would cost.”

One of UCW’s consistent demands has been compliance with the Kentucky Labor Department’s Healthy-at-Work Minimum Requirements for All Businesses, which they feel UK has failed to fully achieve. 

Heil said that the PR department has been citing an employee satisfaction survey which concluded that UK is one of the best universities to work in response to UCW’s demands. 

“We’re seeing things the way they are now, and workers are dissatisfied with it. I’m here now and I’m dissatisfied,” Heil said. “The survey does not do anything to keep me any safer.”