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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Over one thousand Western employees make less than Bellingham living wage

David Hamiter, the manager of the Student Technology Center, found that 1,122 of Western’s staff and faculty earn below living wage. // Photo by Oliver Hamlin

By Samuel Fletcher

When the Public School Employees Union bargained their 2019-21 salary contract over the summer, Western’s Information Technology Specialist David Hamiter went to the drawing board to figure out what an actual living wage in Bellingham is.

He said the results were a bit startling.

On a multi-page spreadsheet, Hamiter calculated the cost of the average house in Bellingham to be $478,000. He considered this price with a 30-year mortgage at today’s average rate of 4.73 percent and a principal payment of $2,486. Then he included the added expenses of property taxes, homeowner’s insurance and mortgage insurance.

When he averaged payments for water, garbage, sewer, electric, car payments, car insurance, parking at Western and internet and phone, the living wage for Bellingham became $59,000 a year.

This means that 1,122 of Western’s staff and faculty wishing to raise a small family on a single income earn below a living wage – about 56 percent, compared to the 891 who are above, Hamiter said.

This is also not considering any money for clothes and only $100 per month for food for the entire family, he added.

“You’re doing a full-time job, you should be able to raise a family and feed them and hopefully maybe even put clothes on them and send them to college someday,” Hamiter said. “You’d hope that you could, but we’re not actually doing that here.”

Environmental Health and Safety Technician Sarah Neugebauer is not surprised by these numbers. She has two college-age kids, yet she said she cannot afford to send either to secondary education.

Neugebauer joined Western’s staff in 2010 for better medical benefits for her and her family, she said. After nine years, her hourly wage has nearly doubled but she still has trouble making ends meet.

“It’s impossible to make it, and we feel like the administration at Western may not fully realize what it’s like to not have savings, not have all of your needed dental work done, not have the ability to fund a retirement account,” Neugebauer said.

Many of Neugebauer’s colleagues also work multiple jobs, she said.

“The university indicates in its contracts that it values flexible work schedules and compressed work weeks, but they don’t make that available to very many people that I know of,” she said. “We have no work-life balance, barely enough money, so we end up working another job beyond our jobs here just to catch our breath once in a while financially.”

Neugebauer is the president of the Washington Federation of State Employees Union and among her other duties, she is in charge of annual salary bargaining. She said every time the union brings up locality pay, considering how high the cost of living is in western Washington compared to elsewhere in the state, the typical response is that funds are not available in the state budget, she said.

When they addressed a comparable pay percentage for the housing market, the administration responded. They said since their university counterparts in Yakima and Colville can make it on state wages, Western employees should be able to as well, Neugebauer said.

Custodian Sonia Baker’s house has shot up 60 percent in value in the last five years, she said.

“I’m a senior citizen, but I have a roommate because I can’t afford to live by myself,” Baker said. “Would I like to have a place on my own? Yeah. But it’s never gonna happen until I’m in a senior facility.”

The Washington Federation of State Employees negotiated a deal this year so that custodians like Baker would receive a 3 percent wage increase in 2019 and an additional 3 percent in 2020, according to a salary schedule by the Washington State Office of Financial Management.

An additional 6 percent sounds nice, Baker said, but with union, retirement, medical and other various expenses, a single person is looking at at least 28 percent off their paycheck before they can even deposit it.

Prior to this new bargain, the custodians had gone eight years without a wage increase, Baker said.

“Our cost of living is going up so much higher than we are getting, so we are continually going slightly in reverse,” she said.

This, in turn, hurts the university, Neugebauer said.

“We have really capable, skilled people that are in the first half of their working life that are leaving Western voluntarily for other jobs that either offer more in terms of compensation or work-life balance,” she said.

The issue goes well beyond just the staff and faculty of Western, Baker said.

“Look at students and what they’re paying. That’s unbelievable,” she said. “They’ve got parents in the same income range and they’re trying to help their kids, and it’s almost an impossibility to get a good education and a good job when you’ve got 30 years of paying off a student loan. [Students] are right in the same boat with us in this pay group. It’s insane.”

Because this is such a deeply embedded systematic issue, the best way to combat it is to spread awareness, Hamiter said. To Baker, this means showing up to the polls.

“We’ve got to really motivate people to get out and vote and make some good choices because the wealthy are getting wealthier,” she said. “Under Trump’s tax plan, if you look at the first year, we all got a little bit extra in our paycheck. But if you look at the ten-year plan, it’s the average American that’s really gonna suffer and pay.”

Aside from Neugebauer’s near-decade of employment from Western, both her parents worked for the university as well. It has been an ongoing problem that many are getting involved in, she said.

“Western talks a lot of rainbow butterfly kitten language about how much they care about diversity and helping their faculty and staff make a good living, because they know that without the faculty and staff there is no Western,” Neugebauer said. “They say it, but they don’t do it.”

Western’s Human Resource department did not return a request for comment.


  1. I would expect to see some better reporting here – cross checking the numbers against published numbers – checking with other sources, etc. Aligning expectations with reality: how much to comparable jobs in Whatcom County and throughout the state pay, peer institutions, etc. It’s not that it’s right or wrong, it’s that it so terribly one-sided. It may also be more informative to break the housing market into traunches: the average price of a home in Bellingham includes some incredibly pricey property. I’m the last to say that Bellingham has “affordable” real estate, but there are many single family homes in the ballpark of $350,000, which might be a better benchmark. Then there are cultural expectations that could be questioned: should a middle-class lifestyle be affordable on a single income for everyone? It seems that if it was every that way, it hasn’t been at any time in my life outside of professions like law, medicine, and high-finance. Are we going to continue to expect to live in standalone single-family dwellings on a 5000 sq. ft. lot when land is clearly at a premium, and such dwellings are a very energy intensive way for 2-4 people to house themselves? This isn’t a criticism of the WWU employees who spoke up so much as an urging of WF reporters to go a little further in their reporting to create a bigger and more nuanced view of the story’s core question.


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