Brandeis University has put on its payroll 22 custodians who had previously been employed by contractors, concluding a multi-year effort by students and labor leaders to win better pay and benefits for the workers.
The Brandeis Labor Coalition , a student group, successfully lobbied the university last August to ask contractors to raise the salaries of the outsourced custodians at Brandeis to the level of the 63 custodians already on the university's payroll. All workers began receiving $14.63 an hour -- a $3-per-hour raise for the contracted workers. The university raised the pay this year to $15.11. Funding is coming from the university's operating budget.
As a second step, the university agreed to hire the outsourced custodians directly, starting last month, after the university's contract with the two contractors expired. Josh Rosenthal, a Brandeis senior and member of the Labor Coalition, said the new payroll workers also receive the same number of sick and vacation days as equivalent employees.
“It’s incredible,” Rosenthal said. “Our group was started when we recognized the pay disparity. Since the university reached an agreement with the union, we’ve been seeing this move forward.”
Added Dennis Nealon, a Brandeis spokesman: "The university is extremely pleased that it could come through on its commitment to do this. We know it’s an issue of equity.”
Students on a number of campuses -- with mixed success -- have pushed for better wages or benefits for custodians who are hired by contractors. But moving from outsourced contractors back to payroll employees is unusual these days, as an increasing number of colleges are going in the opposite direction. Because colleges generally provide more comprehensive employee benefit packages than do the outside companies, many labor groups prefer to have the employees work directly for the colleges.
Jill Hurst, deputy director of the Justice for Janitors department of Service Employees International Union Local 615, the union representing the custodians, said Brandeis' move shows that it is "increasingly willing to provide living wages, whether an employee is direct or contracted.”
Dan Nicolai, director of the higher education division for the union's Local 615 chapter, called the latest move “a victory” in the effort to achieve equal pay.
Julie Miller, a senior coalition member, said the university's move sends a positive message to other campuses. “It's refreshing to see the value of justice is still part of the university today. This is a new step in dealing with labor on campus, and important in setting a precedent.”
Last month, custodians at the University of Miami ratified a four-year contract  with their employer, UNICCO Services, which will increase wages by as much as 51 percent. Student activism on behalf of custodians has also taken place at Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Virginia and Georgetown University, among other campuses.
Nicolai, the union leader, said this case wasn’t just about the money. He said the Brandeis-hired custodial staff tends to have more job security than the contract workers. The university also has a policy where employees' children, if admitted, can attend for a discounted rate, he said.