'A beautiful thing ': University of Kentucky campus workers win a $15 minimum wage in a $7.25 state

Originally published by Yahoo Finance, May 28th, 2021

The fight for $15 an hour in minimum wage may have lost political will in D.C., but a win in one Republican-dominated state shows that there's still some steam left in the movement.

Campus workers at the University of Kentucky recently persuaded the college's president to increase their minimum hourly pay to $15 by January 1, 2022.

For 58-year-old Donald Moore, who's been working as a custodian at the university since 2001, the raise meant that he could cut back on his second job and no longer have to work 14 to 16 hours a day.

"To see the outcome of it — it was a beautiful thing for me," Moore told Yahoo Finance.

About 2,000 workers will be affected, the Moore's United Campus Workers (UCW) union estimated.

"It’s a very big victory, a turn in the right direction," Cory Pollard, a custodian at the school, said in a statement.

A custodian at the University of Kentucky. (University of Kentucky)
A custodian at the University of Kentucky. (University of Kentucky)

About 40% of jobs in the state pay less than $15 an hour, according to an op-ed by Jason Bailey at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. The state itself goes by the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which hasn't been raised since 2009.

The eligible will also get a 2% merit raise, regular employees will get a one-time $1,000 payment, and their employer retirement contribution of 10% would return to pre-pandemic levels.

Part-time regular campus workers will also get paid leave to welcome a new child or if they need to care for a sick parent.

'A very big victory'

While talk of passing a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour has died down after a contentious fight in D.C. in March, many other states like Rhode Island and even companies have been slowly raising wages to retain or even entice more workers.

The University of Kentucky campus workers' union saw membership pick up last year amid the pandemic as people were concerned about coming back to work. 

"As custodians, we have to be there regardless of whether there's a pandemic or not," said Moore. "It's a little nerve-wracking knowing that we had to be around ... students, and you never know who's exposed, who wasn't exposed" to COVID-19."

The union began petitioning for things like free testing of COVID-19 for staff members. They then submitted a petition last fall with 1,000 signatures to the president's office to request for a wage hike to $15 an hour, as well as for hazard pay, and other demands.

"They pretty much ignored that," union member and undergraduate student Mary Sherman said. 

But after organizing rallies and getting more press coverage, the college decided to revisit the demands and ended up committing to the pay increase and other benefits.

And despite the win, Moore said he was not fully happy with $15 an hour. 

“I’m not satisfied with it" given his 19 years of service, he said. “I made more as a chef in Massachusetts 25 years ago."