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New year, new wages

The start of the semester has brought more changes this year than just new classes and construction projects. In recent days, Duke announced plans to roll out a series of minimum wage increases for contracted workers and employees on campus. Beginning July 1, 2017, the new baseline pay will be $14 which will be raised another dollar per hour the following year. This wage boost can mean a lot of things for employees and it’s important to understand  the historical and political context that this decision exists within.

Economic inequality in the United States has been a prominent issue over the course of several generations, garnering countless hours of study and analysis. Research from Berkeley economist Emmanuel Sayez and his colleagues suggest that from the 1980s onward, the wealthiest Americans have seen far greater gains in economic growth than the bottom 99 percent. While individuals from all corners of the political spectrum have debated endlessly the causes for income disparity, one thing that’s difficult to dispute is how glaring the gap in income is in the United States. Additionally, the clear racial and gender-based disparities that are associated with opportunities for economic mobility and wealth accumulation are prominent and impossible to explain away. While it would take far more than a few more dollars added to paychecks to truly solve this systematic inequality, there’s no doubt that Duke has the resources and capacity to help alleviate some of the economic insecurity a lot of its employees face. As one of the largest employers in North Carolina, the university has a moral obligation and an ethical duty to make sure it is doing it’s best to compensate the workers that make this campus run every day. 

Arguments against wage increases that center around students bearing the brunt of higher paychecks fall flat when one examines how Duke allocates its spending. According to a 2014 NPR article, the university only spent 8% of its annual budget on staff compensation whereas 25% of the budget was spent on faculty compensation. This translates into the average student’s tuition largely going towards facilities like West Union or renovated dorms. Additionally, over the last few years, tuition has already risen 4% consistently anyways. Cost of attendance is now resting at approximately $70,000, with no minimum wage increase to blame the price gouging on. 

Often, Duke students view integral staff as cogs of the greater Duke machine rather than as people with the same basic needs as anyone else. While random acts of kindness from students like cakes or cards are appreciated, they aren’t enough to balance out financial precarity among workers on campus. Continue to greet and chat with the janitorial staff in your dorm or the cooks in West Union, but also advocate alongside them for better working conditions and benefits that they deserve. The income raise is welcome news and will hopefully be the first step on a longer journey towards workers at Duke being treated like the valuable and indispensable part of the community that they are. 

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