Cleaning up UC's mess - Page 2

Low-wage University of California workers live in poverty while top executives get big bonuses

Arnold Meza doesn't make enough to support his family as a custodian at UC Berkeley.

Some UC executives, such as UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, receive additional retirement perks. Roughly 200 highly paid UC executives receive a supplemental retirement benefit of 5 percent of their annual pay, said Nikki Fortunato Bas, the executive director of EBASE. That's a total annual cost to UC of $4 million.

"If UC gets its way in 2011, instead of getting to climb that next rung on the ladder out of poverty, [the low wage workers] will take a step backward through a combination of increased contributions to retirement and healthcare and UC withholding a 3 percent raise," Bas said. "All the while, UC is showering already highly-paid executives with six-figure bonuses."

In an infamous budget battle that has required the UC system to restructure its quickly diminishing funding from the state, more than 100,000 employees' paychecks have been reduced while top execs like UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center CEO David Feinberg receive thousands of dollars in bonuses. In September 2010, Feinberg's base pay was increased by 22 percent and he received a $250,000 "retention bonus," for a total compensation of $1.33 million.

These astounding numbers, as part of a $3.1 million package in bonuses for 37 UC executives last September, were quoted in the EBASE report, using data from the UC Regents website (

UCOP says the retention bonuses are necessary "because we pay below market as it is [for top executives' salaries]," said Klein, and the UC needs to offer huge bonuses to keep the executives from moving to higher paying universities. "You have two options: sayonara or we'll match it," Klein said. "You can't recruit in the classifieds for these people ... and you'll have to replace them for the same money, anyway."

The bonuses are not state-funded, said Klein, but are taken from research grants, patient care, and even federal funding. But Bas said the problem is with UC's priorities: "Time and again, they have shown that they can find money to give bonuses or backfill sports programs," she said. "UC may look at this as a matter of technicalities, but we cannot ignore the stories of employees and their families who are struggling to get by."

As it stands, UC is short-staffed when it comes to service workers. "We've been short-staffed for the last 10 years," said Meza, who estimates that UC Berkeley employs about 140 custodians, less than one-third of the 460 or so custodians the university employed in the 1980s. The result is that the students suffer, said Meza. "The students are getting the short end of the stick because we can only clean once a week in some classrooms because we're short staff. We see the students pay a lot with tuition, and they're getting less."

Already, student fees have increased by more than 32 percent, and another 8 percent fee increase is pending, reported EBASE. As the state continues to make cuts, students and low wage service workers suffer the consequences.

According to the California Budget Project, a single-parent family needs to make $68,375 a year just to make ends meet in Alameda County. "UC workers have reduced-cost healthcare, so this number could be adjusted downward to $58,544," said Bas. "For a custodian at UC Berkeley or UC San Francisco making $30,000 or even $40,000 a year, this means working two jobs and collecting cans just to scrape by."

When his oldest was nine years old, Meza remembers, he used to drive his family to the recycling center to get cash for cans he had taken out of the garbage. "The kids were happy in the car because I was going to get money for food when I recycled cans," which meant there would be dinner on the table that night, Meza said, apologizing for getting teary-eyed at the memory.

"I just don't want people who work here to go through what I went through to raise a family," he said.

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