"Doing the Right Thing"

Author: Greg McKenna and Meghan Cappitelli

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Annice Carter rests her elbow on the bin she’s pushed for the last two hours. The trash bags she’s collected on the second floor of the Duncan Student Center are piled up to her head. It’s shortly after midnight, and she and Oretha Hill — who both have worked at Notre Dame for about six years — are almost a quarter of the way through their eight-and-a-half hour shift. 

Carter notes that the late-night environment is peaceful, clean and quiet (though covers of 2010s pop music blare from speakers usually drowned out by hundreds of people during the day). The students are nice, she adds, and she likes being around WVFI, the yearbook and other Irish student media. 

It didn’t hurt, Hill says, that Notre Dame’s benefits have always been “some of the best around” compared to other employers in the area. “

The pay wasn’t,” she says, “but now it’s caught up.” 

Carter and Hill are two of approximately 6,000 university employees, per a Notre Dame news release, impacted by a 3% wage increase for all faculty and staff that took effect August 1. The minimum starting wage for hourly employees is now $17.50 (up from $15), while the minimum wage for student workers increased from $11 to $15 an hour. 

The minimum wage in Indiana has sat at $7.25 an hour since 2009. 

The $25 million move, combined with $50 million distributed during annual merit raises in July, was the largest investment in compensation by St. Joseph County’s largest employer in its 180-year history. The university says the increase will not impact its investment in financial aid or the price of tuition. 

As a nationwide labor shortage persists and inflation approaches 40-year highs, Hill says the gesture “needed to happen” but was still appreciated. 

For Notre Dame Executive Vice President Shannon Cullinan, the decision was about “doing the right thing.” Rather than pinpoint macroeconomic conditions, he frames the commitment as a “thank you” to the faculty, staff and students who powered the university through a “long 28 months” during the pandemic. 

The man who oversees a $1.6 billion operating budget and an endowment in excess of over $20 billion — larger than the nominal GDP of Mali, Georgia and Albania, per World Bank data — comes back to words like “humility” and “stewardship” often when talking of his role. 

Looking out over “God Quad” from a conference room underneath the Golden Dome, he says a primary objective of the plan was to recognize people whose contributions aren’t always seen. 

“You have lots of longtime, veteran employees here who give their heart and soul to the place,” he says. “Think of your custodian in your dorm. Think of the person that shows up at the dining hall on a snow day. Think of the person that’s in the power plant when it’s 95 degrees. These are special people.” 

These, and similar categories of employees, also benefited from the first phase of the plan, a one-time $14 million injection in April. Full and part-time faculty and staff employed before the end of February received awards of $500, $1,250 or $2,500 depending on the length of their tenure. Cullinan says it was intended to be a boost as the staff’s pandemic response came to an end and the “clouds were parting.” 

Then, Cullinan says his office asked the board for permission to continue the momentum and implement a minimum wage comparable to other top universities. Since 2018, the minimum hourly rate at Columbia University has been $15 an hour. In September 2021, Georgetown went to $18.10. 

“We also wanted to make a statement,” Cullinan says. “If you look at it, we’re probably at the top of the market, even if you look at your top schools in the country, for a minimum wage. We feel good about that.” 

The endowment pool’s 53.2% return in the 2021 fiscal year — the second-largest one-year increase in the pool’s history — probably didn’t hurt the case to the board. Cullinan noted most the of the endowment is “restricted,” meaning it can’t be accessed in the short term, and says “but over time, if you’re really thoughtful about it, you can do these things.” 

When the raises started coming in, John Glon, Notre Dame’s associate director of campus dining, says members of his staff were “shocked at what they got.” Everybody, he says, got a piece of the pie, but he also thinks people who were “struggling the most” received relief the quickest. “And so rather than trickling down, I would say it was trickling up,” he says. 

Cullinan claims the decision wasn’t made out of desperation for more employees – “The labor probably would have come back,” he says, due to layoffs in the region. Cyclicality in the manufacturing sector, Glon says, often works to his operation’s benefit as workers look for more stable jobs. 

That doesn’t mean the raises haven’t provided a competitive edge. 

Glon, who spends a significant chunk of his day responding to potential employees, says his staff is approaching “80% capacity.” In 2020, that number was closer to 50 or 60%. He’ll be back in business, he says, when he gets to 90%. 

“The thank you did help us in the long run,” he says. 

When his staff isn’t stretched thin, he says, it can host events that make Campus Dining “a leader in the industry.” Fresh off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons, the basketball team will host a “three-point competition” in South Dining Hall. Signature events such as “Fall Harvest” and “Spring Festival” dinners are returning with greater frequency. 

“Whereas before, we were just serving food,” Glon says, “and we don’t want to just serve food here.” 

His operation would be unable to weather its busiest shifts, he says, without its student workers. Cullinan’s wife, Sarah, worked in the dining halls as a student employee before graduating from Notre Dame in 1995. 

“It’d be really hard to operate this institution without our student workers — both those that are on financial aid and those that are not on financial aid,” says Cullinan, a 1993 graduate who served as a resident assistant and delivered mail. “And with the $15 an hour, it should be more in their pockets moving forward, which we think is a good thing.” 

Glon says student employment is moving back to pre-COVID levels. While the wage increase might incentivize more students to work, Cullinan says it was important to allow student employees to work fewer hours for the same income, freeing up time for academic and extracurricular endeavors. 

“If that’s part of my work study piece (for financial aid), and I really need that, that’s a difference maker,” Cullinan says. “And I’ve heard that from students. Again, that feels like the right thing to do.” 

The wage increase did, however, come with a significant trade off for campus dining, senior and lead student manager at North Dining Hall Pablo Lacayo says. 

“Of course it’s great that we all get to make more money regardless of our jobs, but the reason why the differentiated pay was in place is because the nature of the campus dining job is substantially different from the nature of a job elsewhere, where you could be working as a receptionist at an academic building, where you can do your homework in between shifts,” Lacayo says. “Campus dining doesn’t allow for that because you actually have to be working a service job. You’re behind the scenes in a dishroom, in a kitchen, in a dishline, doing all sorts of things and that doesn’t allow you to do homework. So that additional pay was a crucial selling point for us.” 

Previously, a wage gap was in place, differentiating the pay between campus dining student workers and non-campus dining student workers. With the new campus-wide $15 bump, that gap no longer exists. Lacayo described the elimination of that gap as a “death blow,” stripping student campus dining jobs of the additional pay incentive that came with working a more labor-intensive job. 

“The system is currently structured against working at campus dining within student positions, but we’re pretty resilient,” Lacayo says. 

When senior Suneina Badoni read the announcement in July, she was “overjoyed.” Badoni, who started working for the university’s marketing and communications team, or MarComm, in January, had been making $11 an hour editing videos and shooting footage for future content. As a freshman and sophomore working for Fighting Irish Media, she made less. 

“It’s just already so hard to balance school with doing work that’s really important,” the film, television and theater major says. “So with the wage increase, it just felt like we were a lot more appreciated in that way.” The boost would have been nice three years ago, she notes, but the raise was a mark of respect that helped her “psyche.” 

For Carter and Hill, though, it’s more about the bills that are now easier to pay. Glon knows a lot of his staff have been “hurting in a lot of ways,” especially those who have recently started families and saw their bills mount in a period of economic uncertainty. 

Maybe this thank you present was a long time coming. It could not have arrived, though, at a more critical time