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May 25, 2006

Staff reps discuss salary, health care issues

From a lively — and frank —discussion last week among staff leaders from Pitt’s five campuses emerged shared frustrations and successes, as well as certain campus-specific issues and initiatives.

Staff association representatives from Pitt’s five campuses met May 19 at the Johnstown campus for the annual Council of Campuses meeting. Staff associations rotate hosting the event.

Among the issues common to all staff associations, the staff leaders agreed the two major ones are salary raises in relation to the cost of living and health care costs and accessibility.

Pittsburgh Staff Association Council (SAC) President Rich Colwell said that a SAC analysis shows that a staff member making $25,000 a year in 1995 would after 10 years be making $29,939 annually if that staff member received a raise consisting only of the maintenance component of the salary pool, and $33,658 if the staff member received both the maintenance and merit components.

However, if, instead, the staff member’s salary were increased at the annual Consumer Price Index rate, the same staffer would be making $33,666 after 10 years.

“So, just to break even with inflation you have to have gotten both the maintenance and the merit increases every year,” Colwell noted.

Inflation is expected to be much higher during the current year, he said, with skyrocketing gasoline and utility prices, among other early indicators.

“If you thinking you’re hurting now, you’re going to be really hurting next year,” Colwell said.

With that in mind, the two SAC voting members on University Planning and Budgeting Committee (UPBC), a group of faculty, staff and administrators that makes recommendations to the chancellor on salary increases for staff and faculty, voted against the UPBC salary raise recommendations.

Those recommendations, as well as what SAC recommended to UPBC, are confidential until the chancellor makes his decision, Colwell said.

“The administration has made it clear to us that they are not trying to give staff low salaries, and that faculty are in the same situation, and that the University’s costs are going up,” he said. “But if the University’s costs are going up X percent, aren’t our costs going up the same X percent?”

Carol Hodgkiss, SAC treasurer who is a staff member in the School of Nursing, said, “People are living pay to pay and they are going backward. A lot of people in my school are having to hold two jobs.”

She suggested that Pitt cut back in other areas, such as expensive publications or travel, to free up more dollars for staff salaries.

Colwell said, “The point is, if the staff didn’t enjoy their jobs, they certainly wouldn’t be here for the money. Somebody has got to start addressing the issue of salaries for staff.” He noted that retention, particularly among lower-paid staff, also is a problem.

A related concern, the staff leaders agreed, is that often new hires can receive higher starting salaries than long-term staff currently are making in the same position.

Hodgkiss said, “The reason for that is that salary levels in the job classifications are being raised by 2.5 percent almost every year, but current staff are not getting that 2.5 percent. We’re caught between the 1.5 and maybe 2 percent year after year.”

“It’s like they’re saying if you want to get a higher salary at the University the only way to get it is to transfer to another department and be hired at the mid-point,” Colwell said, adding that the regional campuses have little opportunity to transfer.

Bradford campus Staff Association President Bridgett Passauer, added, “There is a perception that we’re expendable, that our positions can easily be filled.”

The staff groups also addressed common issues regarding health care at Pitt. Two of the Pittsburgh SAC officers sit on the medical advisory committee, Colwell noted, which annually examines the University’s health coverage options.

“If you look at our health care plan, compared to other plans, it’s not that bad; we’re getting a good deal.” The University again is picking up 80 percent of the increased costs, Colwell said.

SAC officers have suggested some health care improvements for the University to pursue, he added.

Primary care physicians are not accessible 24/7, so health plan participants may be forced to go to an emergency room, which involves a fee and typically means a lengthy wait for services.

“So our request was for the University to look into setting up some type of intermediate care, such as satellite clinics,” Colwell said.

For the regionals, the problem is having any providers at all. Titusville campus Staff Association President Kathleen Plyler noted that the Titusville hospital is not a UPMC facility, so people have to find distant alternatives or pay more.

“An even worse problem is the dental coverage,” Plyler said, with the only network dentist in the immediate area no longer taking new clients. “We have to travel more than 40 miles to get to a dentist.”

The Bradford campus has the same problems with network doctor and dentist availability, Passauer said.

Colwell said that SAC has brought up the regionals’ provider problem to Human Resources in the past and will continue to push for some solution.

UPB’s Passauer added that the accessibility of Human Resources professional development workshops is a bugaboo for her distant campus. Pittsburgh SAC members said they forwarded that concern to Human Resources last year, but the problem continues.

“Our Staff Association this year has become more pro-active for personal enrichment,” Passauer said. “For example, we’re going to start a yoga class. The Staff Association is going to pay the instructor, because that’s what our staff want. We’re also trying to tap into our staff expertise for, say, Adobe training, or web page design,” she said.

“We also would like to see more opportunities to pursue graduate degrees, particularly M.B.A.s and higher education doctorates,” perhaps through more distance education channels or increased flexibility to apply Pitt educational benefits to programs at other institutions, Passauer added.

The regional campus staff leaders also summarized the charitable and extracurricular activities that their respective staff associations sponsored in the past year, which included a wide range of goings-on, such as support for Hurricane Katrina relief, new staff member welcoming breakfasts, wellness information sessions, bake sales, concession stands at campus events, flea markets, Heart Association walks, “night out” dinners at local restaurants for staff to socialize, holiday potluck luncheons and food drives, a Super Bowl tailgating party, and bowling and golf outings.

In addition to the meeting of staff leaders and a Johnstown campus tour, the group was welcomed by UPJ President Albert Etheridge.

—Peter Hart

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