For years, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has relied on seasonal employees to work at football games and set up campus events. The state’s government also leans on so-called “limited term employees” who, by definition, aren't to perform more than six months of full-time work per year at one job.
But as state funding for full-time workers declined, the university began calling on the seasonal employees to work part-time over extended periods without giving them permanent status, according to Mark Walters, UW-Madison's director of classified human resources. That practice irked a coalition of students, grabbed the attention of local labor unions and prompted some administrators to call for a policy change.
“The title of limited term employees is supposed to be for those who do short-term work,” Walters said. "If the function is permanent, we have to treat employees accordingly. Some of these workers have been here for 15 or 20 years. We said enough is enough, we have a moral obligation to take care of them."
This week, John D. Wiley, the university's chancellor, signed off on a policy that would reduce the institution's reliance on part-time labor. The plan calls for the conversion of 95 percent of “inappropriate LTE appointments” (mostly those that are drawn out for an extended period of time) to full-time-equivalent positions over the next six years. Starting next summer, the majority of remaining limited term employees would receive what the city of Madison defines as a living wage for a family of four (currently $10.23 per hour). The majority of Madison's part-time employees do not receive benefits.
The Wisconsin move is the latest in a series of actions indicating that universities -- under mounting pressure from students and outside groups -- are taking steps to improve the financial situation of their non-faculty, non-administrative staff.
Earlier this fall, Brandeis University placed on its payroll  22 custodians who had previously been employed by contractors after students and labor leaders lobbied hard for better pay and benefits for the workers. Last month, Florida International University announced plans to move about 150 custodial positions  -- currently outsourced -- back onto the university payroll. Brandeis and Florida International bucked the recent trend of universities moving custodial positions off their payrolls.
Union leaders, students, faculty members and workers across the country have fought to get colleges to "insource" their custodians, because the institutions generally offer better pay and benefits packages than do outside companies.
Those who applaud the personnel decisions say colleges have an obligation to take care of all employees, particularly given the high salaries given to top-level administrators. Others argue that the money is best spent on things that are central to a college's educational mission, such as luring faculty and keeping tuition costs down.
Renee Asher, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 1 million service workers, said colleges send a message to students by how they compensate their lower-income workers.
"You are seeing a lot of universities taking a hard look at the wages and benefits that their employees are earning and not liking what they see," Asher said. "It's hard to dress up as a best business practice keeping some employees below the poverty level."
Asher added that high-profile cases, such as the recent right-to-unionize saga at the University of Miami , prompted other colleges (she mentioned Florida International) to look at their own policies.
Andy Brantley, chief executive of College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said that in many cases, personnel decisions boil down to simple demand. Years ago, Brantley said, it was easier for colleges to hire workers for the academic year only. But with institutions often operating at near-full capacity year-round, there's a greater need for full-time employees, he said.
"There's been a need to move away from seasonal employees based on this pressure," Brantley said.
Walters, the UW-Madison director, said the "living wage" increases to its limited term employees would cost the university about $750,000 -- money that would probably come from athletics and the student center's budget. He said the university will do all it can to fund the plan without dipping too heavily in taxpayer money. “We’re not looking to our governor’s office to give us more money,” he said.
About 2,500 limited term employee positions exist at Wisconsin, and Walters said some spots will remain, as there will still be a need for truly seasonal staffing. Part-time employees are not guaranteed to get new full-time positions but are encouraged to go through the interview process. Those who make the transition will be on the university's benefits package -- though they will have to abide by the state's six-month wait period.
Walters said the university has yet to determine how many full-time positions to create. He estimated the number could be roughly 150 over the next six years.