Durham County

A raise is coming for thousands of Duke University workers. Here’s why.

Duke University plan to raise the wages of more than 2,300 of its workers to a minimum of $15 an hour by mid-2019.
Duke University plan to raise the wages of more than 2,300 of its workers to a minimum of $15 an hour by mid-2019. rgronberg@heraldsun.com

Duke University will raise its minimum wage for its “regular” employees and full-time contract workers to $15 an hour by the mid-2019.

The move should affect more than 2,300 Duke employees who work for the university or its health care system, and will be phased in over the coming two summers in $1-an-hour increments, officials said. The minimum wage at Duke is now $13 an hour.

The affected workers are “spread across a variety of different categories ... from one side of the campus to the other side of the [Duke University] Health System,” said Kyle Cavanaugh, the university’s vice president of administration.

Duke’s announcement noted that, for in-house workers, the policy applies to people who work at least 20 hours a week and at least 36 weeks a year.

Outside contractors who employ people who work full time on the Duke campus are supposed to follow the university’s phase-in schedule, officials said. Cavanaugh didn’t have a handy estimate of how many contract workers will benefit.

“Duke has a longstanding commitment to providing a total compensation package that recognizes and rewards the talented people who continue to make this institution a national leader,” said the university’s president, Vince Price. “This starts with pay, which is why we are moving forward with these increases, but it also includes benefits such as health insurance, retirement, and paid time away. Our goal always is for Duke to be the best place to work in North Carolina.”

The $15 benchmark for hourly pay is symbolic, as it matches the level that’s figured in the “Fight for $15” public-relations campaign union groups on campus, in Durham and in other parts of the state and country have mounted in recent years.

And despite the hours-of-work qualifiers the Duke attached to its pledge, spokesmen for grad-student and adjunct-faculty unions on the Duke campus said their groups are pleased with it.

“We are excited to see Duke moving in what’s obviously the right direction in treating its workers more fairly,” said Michael Burrows, a doctoral candidate in the Sanford School of Public Policy who’s involved in the grad-student union.

As for the adjunct-faculty union, “we’re delighted that Duke is interested in paying all its employees fairly, and we support efforts across the board to make sure that Duke is making life in Durham and the Triangle accessible to the diversity of staff that work here,” said spokesman Mike Dimpfl, an instructor in the university’s Thompson Writing Program.

Burrows and Dimpfl said it’s now up to their groups, and others, to watch out for any attempt by campus administrators and contractors to cut back on worker hours to get around the wage increases.

“Now that they’re explicit and on the table, they can become objects of conversation as we support all people at the university,” Dimpfl said of the 20-hour threshold for campus workers to qualify and the stipulation that contracts have to apply the higher minimum wage only to full-time workers.

“We want Duke to move, assuming the best intentions of the university, but we will do our best to hold them accountable whenever there’s an opportunity to do so,” added Burrows.

But Duke officials say aren’t expecting any economic gamesmanship from departments and contractors.

“We anticipate, as we look out over the immediate future, that the workload we’re going to see is not going to subside in any way,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re not, candidly, concerned about there being a reduction of hours based on this.”

Friday’s announcement was the latest in a string of pay-related moves at Duke.

Earlier this month, the members of Dimpfl’s union ratified a new contract with the university that promised average pay increases to its members in trinity College, Duke’s graduate school and the Center for Documentary Studies of 14 percent for faculty paid by the court, 12 percent for salaried faculty and 46 percent for instructors in Applied Music.

This week, Duke officials also announced that they’d offer tuition scholarships to sixth-year Ph.D. students who aren’t getting other department or outside funding to subsidize the completion of their degrees.

That was a big step because “until a few days ago, sixth-year graduate students had to pay roughly $7,000 in extra tuition once they passed the fifth year of their studies, which is pretty common in number of disciplines,” said Burrows. “That makes it harder to get out because you have to take on extra work to pay the extra tuition.”

The grad-student union – which like the adjuncts’ is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union – tried and failed to secure formal bargaining rights via an election earlier this year. It’s continuing to work on campus anyway, informally, and doesn’t expect to renew an election bid because of the likelihood that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration will rescind a federal labor ruling that allowed grad students at private universities to unionize, Burrows said.

Duke official have been quick to point out that while the university certainly isn’t short of money, it’s also not short of things to do with it. But they believe the pay increases are something they can both afford and sustain, Cavanaugh said.

“Every one of these moves are ones that we have to look at in the context of everything else the institution is doing,” he said. “Duke has long recognized that one of its greatest [assets] are the people who come and commit their work lives here. I would be the first to say I believe it’s those individual commitments, on a daily basis, that make this place as great as it is.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg