In a letter addressed to faculty and staff, University of Memphis President M. David Rudd announced a $15 an hour raise in minimum wage for employees, effective June 5, 2021.
In his letter, sent Tuesday, Jan. 19, Rudd said the UofM was forced to reevaluate its financial model as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite “challenges across every domain of University operations,” Rudd said the UofM “maintained a firm commitment to raising our minimum wage in a responsible and sustainable manner.”
The announcement makes good on a commitment Rudd first made in 2019 after a public exchange between himself and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris over a $1 million county grant for renovations to the UofM’s swimming facilities.
In July of 2019, Harris vetoed the grant to renovate the Mike Rose Natatorium, which is used by Memphis Tiger Swimming – a YMCA swim team for the youth in Memphis, as a way of putting pressure on the UofM to raise its minimum wage, which was $11.11 an hour at the time. The county commission overrode the veto, but Rudd still promised a raise to $15 an hour by 2021. Rudd said he was committed to raising the minimum wage for university employees, but only if the burden did not fall on students in the form of increased tuition. His letter last week repeated this commitment.
In 2019, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer was the sole commissioner to endorse Harris’ veto. Speaking last week to The Daily Helmsman, Sawyer expressed her approval of the efforts made by the UofM, but for her the increase is still not enough.
“Really $15 is not even scratching the surface,” Sawyer said. “I think we’re looking at $19, $20 or $23, and I think anyone who might turn their nose up at that should take a look at the fact that we definitely have the ability. I mean, is there even a name for the amount of money Elon Musk has?”
Still, for some, the news of a $15 an hour minimum wage was a welcomed announcement.
“Some of our workers had tears of joy with the announcement, so it’s a step in the right direction,” said Meghan Cullen, the vice president of the Memphis chapter of the United Campus Workers Union.
Cullen also noted that the minimum pay increase would not apply to all employees of the UofM, expressing concern for graduate assistants and part-time employees, many of whom are students themselves.
“We know the university cares deeply about students and student welfare,” Cullen said. “I know that they would want to ensure that most of the students are making a living wage.”
Raaj Kurapati, the Chief Financial Officer for the UofM, confirmed that while the minimum wage increase mostly applies to full-time campus workers, there are some part-time workers who are benefits-eligible and would receive the raise as well. Kurapati said graduate students receive stipends from their respective departments as benefits packages and if you consider the entirety of the packages, “graduate assistants are already over the $15 an hour threshold.”
For Antionette Patterson, who has worked for the UofM as a custodian for 13 years, the pay raise is “necessary, especially because of the pay cuts employees have had this past year.”
While Patterson already makes the $15 an hour rate, she knows employees who are hurting and who will be positively impacted by the raise. “It’s necessary and it’s necessary now,” she said.
Other steps outlined in Rudd’s email that were taken to reach the minimum wage increase include a hiring freeze, improvements to efficiency and operational costs and “strategic management of attrition.”