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May 15, 2003

Senate Council debates staff salary hike policy

In years when Pitt can afford cost-of-living raises, should staff members whose supervisors rate their job performances as “satisfactory,” or better, automatically get such raises?

Or, should exceptions to that guideline be made (and salary increases denied) for staff who have reached the top of the pay scales for their job classifications?

Those conflicting approaches to staff compensation were at the heart of an intense, hour-long debate during Monday’s Senate Council meeting.

The discussion touched on differing interpretations of the University’s 1999 staff classification system and 1993 salary increase policy, the respective roles of staff and faculty here, and the future of Pitt as a humane employer struggling to stretch its tight compensation dollars.

Prompting the polemic was a Council resolution “strongly recommending” that:

• Pitt staff who were denied raises this year because they had “maxed-out” of the salary ranges for their jobs should get raises (retroactive to July 1, the beginning of Pitt’s fiscal year) of at least 1.5 percent. That was the percentage “maintenance of real salary” raise this year for employees judged to have done satisfactory work. Larger raises should be considered for staff judged to have done better-than-satisfactory work, according to the resolution.

• In future years, staff salary ranges should be increased annually by at least the amount allocated under Pitt’s salary increase policy for maintenance of real salary.

Senate Council endorsed the resolution by a vote of 10-7, with 9 people (mainly, student representatives on Council) abstaining. Earlier this month, the resolution was approved unanimously by Faculty Assembly and the University Senate’s budget policies committee.

But the seven men who voted against the resolution at Monday’s Senate Council meeting included Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, Provost James Maher, Executive Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran and other administrators who ultimately decide how Pitt allocates its compensation dollars.

That — coupled with the fact that University Senate groups can only recommend action, not impose it — make it extremely unlikely that the Senate resolution will be implemented.

This year, 82 Pitt staff were ineligible for raises because their salaries had reached maximums that the University pays for their job classifications.

Since 1999, Pitt has benchmarked most of its staff salaries against those of other employers in western Pennsylvania. For certain higher-level technical positions, Pitt benchmarks against national markets.

Last year, for the first time under the job classification system, the University administration’s benchmarking survey found that the competitive environment — characterized by economic recession and widespread layoffs and hiring freezes — did not justify raising Pitt pay ranges for most staff.

Executive Vice Chancellor Cochran reported that among the 82 staff ineligible for raises because they had “maxed out” of their classifications, 40 ended up getting pay increases after their supervisors convinced Pitt senior administrators that the staff deserved raises either because of meritorious/outstanding service or because staff had assumed additional duties beyond what their job descriptions required.

No staff member whose supervisor appealed his or her case was denied a raise, Cochran said.

Permanently immune from “maxing out” of their salary ranges are Pitt staff who, as of June 30, 1999, (when the staff classification system took effect) were earning 90 percent or more of the maximum pay for their job classification.

Pitt’s staff classification system is intended to set salaries for classes of staff, not individual employees. “You pay the job, not the person,” as Vice Provost Robert F. Pack said at a recent meeting of the University Senate’s budget policies committee (BPC).

BPC chairperson Philip Wion, whose committee introduced the resolution championing “maxed-out” staff, argued that the administration’s position contradicts Pitt’s 1993 salary increase policy. That policy specifies that staff who perform satisfactorily should receive a “maintenance of real salary” raise, which this year was 1.5 percent.

In real dollars, a cost-of-living raise only maintains the purchasing power of an employees’ existing salary; it’s not really a salary increase, Wion said.

“In some respects, it’s a minor, small issue” involving minimal raises for a relatively small number of employees, Wion acknowledged. “In other respects, I think it’s a very important one because it goes to the heart of what kind of institution this is.”

Staff deserve to be treated with decency and respect, and they deserve recognition for their work, Wion said, paraphrasing a statement that former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill made at Pitt’s April 27 commencement ceremony.

Such recognition should include monetary compensation, not just annual ceremonies honoring a few staff for long-term service and outstanding contributions to the community, said Wion.

“We should be encouraging, not discouraging, long-term staff who get good evaluations year after year,” the English professor said.

Cochran disagreed with Wion’s assertion that denying raises to “maxed-out” staff demoralizes employees. The real disincentive, Cochran said, would be if newer staff saw co-workers in the same job classification getting paid more, year after year, simply because they had stayed in the same job for a long time.

“From a motivational standpoint, one of the advantages of this kind of system is to provide a mechanism to encourage employees to take advantage of all the opportunities they have within and outside the University to enhance and improve their skill sets,” Cochran said.

This year’s denial of raises to some staff who’d reached the top of their pay scales should not have surprised anyone, the executive vice chancellor said. “Quite frankly,” Cochran noted, “the only necessity for grandfathering [staff on the verge of “maxing out” as of June 30, 1999] was the potential that, in any given year, the maximum would not be raised.”

Implementation of a new job classification system three years ago was part of Pitt’s effort to raise all of its employees’ compensation to appropriate market levels, said Provost Maher.

And while many professors here can point to other universities that pay better than Pitt (which competes in a national market for faculty), Pitt’s salary ranges for staff have reached, and in some cases exceeded, what other local employers are paying, the provost said.

“It’s important that everybody come face to face with the cold, hard fact that the reason the [staff salary] maximums weren’t raised is that no one else in Pennsylvania was going to pay more for those jobs,” Maher said.

In response to Wion’s argument that, as a matter of principle, no staff member who performs satisfactorily should be denied the University’s cost-of-living raise, Maher said Pitt has a more pressing responsibility to allocate scarce salary monies where they’re needed most — and that does not include “someone who is at the very top of the pay scale for their skills here in this state,” he said.

Francesca Savoia, of the French and Italian languages and literatures department, pointed out that next year’s increases in Pitt health insurance premiums will cost staff disproportionately.

“The administrative assistant in my department is going to pay the same increase monthly in her health insurance that I do, and I make probably double what she makes,” said Savoia, who voted for the Council resolution. “If we’re talking about principles, that’s a very big principle to me.”

“Francesca,” Maher replied, “I can’t deal with that for the following reasons: I mean, if we were a socialist country, I would understand that argument. Maybe even from my own personal moral system, I felt a twinge at what you had to say.

“But that staff member we’re talking about — the future of her job depends on our getting the right faculty here and keeping them here.”

Maher said he regularly hears from Pitt faculty about “other schools that are paying more.”

“I’m trying to find the money to pay everybody competitively for their job skills….We have brought the staff up to the benchmark. And in a year when the staff benchmarking shows that the salaries in those classifications have not advanced, I just don’t see the justification for putting money in that direction.”

John M. Close of the School of Dental Medicine noted that his school recently was re-accredited “with flying colors,” an accomplishment that he attributed to its long-term staff as well as the school’s faculty and administrators.

Such staff provide a value-added benefit that no job classification system can account for, according to Close. “It goes beyond the set of skills described in their job classification,” he said. “Their level of expertise and University savvy should count for something.”

—Bruce Steele & Peter Hart

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