Bowdoin students and workers protested the school’s starting hourly wage of $12.25 in May after many workers came forward and said they often have to work several jobs or go to the food bank. Monday, the college announced plans to increase the starting wage to $17 per hour by 2022. (Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — In the face of an increasingly competitive labor market, Bowdoin College’s hourly employees will see their wage increase to $17 per hour by 2022, starting with a boost to $14 per hour next summer, a $1.35 increase from the college’s current minimum wage. 

The plan to scale up from the college’s current $12.65 minimum wage, “reflects Bowdoin’s commitment to remaining a leader in wages and benefits in a new reality of record-low unemployment and increasing competition for excellent employees,” according to Bowdoin President Clayton Rose.  

The already tight labor market is made increasingly tighter by Bath Iron Works’ plans to hire 1,000 workers next year, Rose said in his statement. 

“This is the right thing to do for our employees, whose hard work is essential to making Bowdoin special,” Rose added. 

The increase is expected to cost Bowdoin approximately $1.6 million per year once it is fully implemented, according to Doug Cook, director of college and media relations.  The money will have to come from elsewhere in the budget, he said, meaning some areas will receive cuts.  Cook said the college has not begun the budget process, so the area has not yet been determined. 

As the starting wage increases, at an average of about 10% each year until 2022, Rose said, college officials will also increase wages and benefits for benefits-eligible hourly employees “in order to mitigate the impact of wage compression.” These changes will be made progressively, with the lowest-paying jobs receiving the largest increases, “and in ways that recognize responsibilities, job requirements and performance,” he said.

During the same period, Maine’s minimum wage is also expected to increase, starting with a $1 hike to $12 next year. Future increases will be based on the Consumer Price Index cost-of-living increases, which are typically less than 3%.

Bowdoin College has 378 benefits-eligible hourly employees, not including a few unfilled positions, according to Cook. Student employees will not be eligible for the increase. 

Currently only six newly hired employees make the $12.65 wage, according to information released by the college. The majority of hourly employees work in either facilities or dining services. 

In May, the student-led Bowdoin Labor Alliance held a protest and started a petition asking the college to establish a living wage for hourly employees, especially the housekeeping and facilities staff. A living wage in Cumberland County is $13.13 for a single adult, or $14.34 for two working adults with a child, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s online living wage calculator. Those numbers climb significantly if only one adult in the household is working or there are multiple children. 

These employees “should not have to depend on food banks, and our institution should not stoop to the level of exploitative corporations like Walmart when we, supposedly, strive to achieve the ‘Common Good,’” the group said in its mission statement. 

The group called for the college to raise the starting wage to $15 per hour from what was then $12.25, according to BLA members. 

Shortly after, the college rolled out another new wage plan and raised the starting wage to $12.65.  In the new plan, housekeepers would make an average of $14.95 per hour, an increase from the then-$13.97 per hour average.

In Cumberland County, the average “maid and housekeeper” as classified by the Maine Department of Labor, earns $11.28 per hour. 

“This is all driven by what we’re seeing in the labor market,” Cook said, and Bowdoin “wanting to be the employer of choice in Brunswick and in the Midcoast.”

Cook believes the college is still perceived as such, but in order to continue, they had to “take a good hard look at our benefits and compensation practices.”

Ben Ray and Diego Grossmann, two of the students spearheading the Bowdoin Labor Alliance, rejected the “labor market” reasoning. 

“This is the result of pressure from our community,” Ray said. “I think the only way this happened and ever would have happened is by people coming together and pushing for change.” 

In May, college officials said that with the wages above the state and county average and with a competitive benefits plan, employees are paid a fair wage that they feel is attractive to workers. 

But to Grossmann and Ray, this reasoning is flawed. 

“The college said market factors were their reason for not increasing the wage, and then named as the reason for increasing the wage,” Ray said. 

“That language just shows that these people are expendable to the administration when they are the people that make it look and feel like $2 billion dollars,” Grossmann added. 

Ray said they are still concerned about wage compression. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, wage compression occurs when “new hires are paid the same as or more than current workers in the same position, or when the pay difference between employee levels shrinks so that higher-level workers feel that their pay advantage is no longer significant.” 

This concern was raised during the protest, when Sandy Greene, a housekeeper at the college for over 10 years, said she makes only $1 more than somebody hired today. 

“There’s no indication that the wage compression is really going to be tackled in any real way,” Grossmann said. “It’s worrisome, and something that I think will be an issue down the line.” 

“None of this is dead in the water,” Ray said of the campaign. “Even if you can address wages, particularly starting wages, that doesn’t guarantee a workplace where people feel respected.” 

“This step in the right direction proves that only public pressure and collective action by our community can leverage Bowdoin to take the concerns, voices, and lives of workers seriously,” the Bowdoin Labor Alliance wrote in a Facebook post Monday, after the wage increase was announced. “We will not let this move keep us quiet or make us close our eyes to issues of class, labor, and exploitation around us every day.”

This story has been updated to include Maine’s planned minimum wage increase.

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