Throughout Oregon, there are tens of thousands of critical jobs that keep our state moving. Everything from fixing our roads and fighting forest fires to helping families in need enroll in public services or supporting the IT infrastructure at our public universities. This year, our union is bargaining new contracts with employers and we have an opportunity to support thousands of good, union jobs in every community in our state.
But in recent years, politicians and top administrators in Oregon have sought to paint a false narrative of public employees as overpaid. Their goal is to win a “race to the bottom” on labor costs that might balance some numbers on a spreadsheet in Salem, but would devastate one of the pillars of the middle class in Oregon: public sector jobs.
SEIU 503 member Michelle DeParrie works at a Department of Human Services (DHS) processing center in Portland, where she screens SNAP applications, provides online application support, and works on scheduling issues. She made $31,000 last year.
“It is not a living wage. I use a lot of low income programs, including food stamps, energy assistance, food banks, and things like that,” says DeParrie, even though she has a bachelor’s degree and ten years of experience in social services. The average cost of rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Portland is $1,653 a month, well over half the $2,766 she takes home every month. This is just a part of the rapidly increasing cost of living in a developing city like Portland, and that is not an uncommon position for public employees to be put in as wages rarely keep up with the skyrocketing expenses of the area.
“People have a big misconception about public employees. All of my coworkers are financially strapped because of how fast the cost of living is rising and our wages are not going up at a rate that is commiserate,” says DeParrie.
Right now SEIU 503 members around the state are bargaining over the contract that will determine wages and benefits for the next couple of years. One of the critical parts of this negotiation is looking at Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs), which are built in raises that are supposed to increase all staff’s wages in response to the rising costs of living. For years, these COLAs have been so miniscule that they have been unable to match the actual cost increases, so bargaining teams are now standing up for a full ten-percent COLA that would help to partially alleviate the financial burden that workers have been under.
“A ten percent wage increase would put me where I should be in the first place. I do an essential job that has to be done so I don’t see why people shouldn’t be paid an appropriate wage for it,” says Rob Keuneke, a custodian at Oregon State University who makes $14.02/hr after four years of working. Right now, the management for the universities is offering a 0.5 percent COLA, something that would amount to a six cent raise over three years for entry level employees in his position.
“The university administrators who take home $200k or $300k a year seem to think we are asking for too much. It is hard to hear people who make a six figure income say that people who want to make above minimum wage are asking for too much.”
With understaffing and underfunding such a critical issues in departments from child welfare to DHS to the public state universities, it is important that management hear its employees when they say they demand fair compensation.
“It is just wrong to be paying our people who are doing the really important work to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable people in our state,” says Michelle DeParrie. “DHS publicly lists its mission to “lift families out of poverty through stable living wage employment,” so how about they provide stable living wage employment to the employees who do the work for the department.”