Bruce Nissen, director of research for the Center of Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University, raised several questions regarding the validity of a Student Government report detailing how undergraduates would be affected by the living wage.
Three members of the SG Senate filed the report, entitled “Independent Inquiry on the Undergraduate Student Impact of Implementing a ‘Living Wage’ for UNICCO Workers at the University of Miami.” It cited Nissen as a source who advised them on the report.
Nissen, who played a role in establishing the living wage for the city of Miami, was particularly concerned after reading the final report.
One of Nissen’s main arguments was that no calculations were presented in the report. As a result, he was uncertain whether the numbers reported were accurate if a raise in tuition would be necessary to fund a living wage.
“The minimum thing they could’ve done is to show an appendix representing the numbers as the basis for their calculations,” Nissen said. “It wasn’t properly done. I was pretty confused since $221 [the highest raise on each tuition] would most likely mean that the entire costs would be 100 percent drawn from tuitions, instead of the 22.3 percent of the university’s operating budget, which is the actual part of student tuitions.”
However, two of the report’s co-authors, Kris Brooks, Eaton Residential College senator, and Camilo Martinez, senior class senator, said they were confident that they followed a formula given to them by Nissen to the dot.
“He gave us a specific formula in our interview with him and we followed it,” Brooks said. “At the time, he didn’t tells us the actual number, but we later found out that is was 22.3 percent. And yes, leaving the calculations out of the report was my mistake. We should’ve definitely included them.”
The results obtained used the formula: total cost multiplied by 0.223, divided by the total undergraduate population.
The report said that the costs to each student would be $193.26 if healthcare was provided and $221.31 with each worker would earn $11.23 per hour if a healthcare program was not provided.
However, Nissen said that it would be the higher number no matter what the case, since the difference between the two numbers would have to be paid in insurance premiums.
Another area mentioned in the report was that endowments to the university could not be used unless specified by the donor for this cause-the living wage. Yet, there are unrestricted endowments, or funds that are not specifically directed to be spent anywhere or on any particular project.
The university’s unrestricted net assets increased by $8.1 million in the fiscal year ending May 2004, and almost $170 million in the fiscal year ending May 2005.
“From [the unrestricted endowments] or from allocation of properties, the university’s definitely capable of paying for a living wage for their workers without having to raise tuition” Nissen said. “If not, they could always cut back on some things, reallocate resources; they could pay for it in a thousand different ways. [The senators] shouldn’t have assumed that if the university’s costs go up, that everything else will, including the tuition. Universities’ costs go up every year.”
Brooks mentioned that when he researched the endowments on UM’s website, he was not able to find anything about the unrestricted endowments. He and the other two senators still believe that even though the university is capable of paying for a living wage, they may not choose to do so.
Nissen is an expert on workers’ wages, the state of workers, working poverty and many other labor-related issues mostly for the state of Florida. He has published several scholarly books and reports , including “The Impact of a ‘Living Wage’ Ordinance on Miami-Dade County” in 1998.
Even though Nissen was somewhat disappointed with the report, he acknowledged that this type of research is very difficult.
“This is hard work and I know that these mistakes weren’t done out of spite or maliciously,” he said. “I just wish they would’ve consulted me to the fullest, especially before issuing the final report.”
The senators are currently working on a revised version, which will be completed in several weeks. They are also happy that people have expressed interest and debated the report.
“I’m glad people are talking about it,” said Daniel Ohrenstein, Pearson Residential College senator and co-author of the report. “Debate is good. I’m pleased that people are concerned with the accuracy of what’s being told to them.”
Student leaders also expressed their appreciation for the senators’ work.
“I’m confident in the Student Government’s ability to work through this issue,” said Jacob Coker-Dukowitz, leader of Students Toward a New Democracy (STAND). “The real focus now is whether the workers’ rights are being respected and the report is a step up to that. Student Government has played an active role in this process.”
The SG Senate UNICCO report can be viewed at www.miami.edu/SG.
Ricardo Herrera can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.