FAYETTEVILLE -- A total of 550 employees at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville considered to be classified staff members received pay increases starting Dec. 1.
Appointed staff members earning less than $30,000 annually were eligible for the increases, said UA spokesman Mark Rushing. Out of the 550 receiving raises, most saw salaries increased to at least $2,500 monthly, which works out to $30,000 annually.
UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz previously announced plans for the pay increases, in a July statement describing a "longstanding issue with employee compensation for staff who earn less than $30,000."
Over 12 months, UA will spend an additional $2,377,395 to cover the base salary increases, Rushing said. The university has a total of 1,209 appointed classified staff members, including 17 part-time employees. Counting all workers, UA has 4,789 employees.
Trish Watkins, chair of UA's staff senate group and director of grants, finance and human resources for World Trade Center Arkansas, said the raises are meaningful for staff members struggling because of low pay.
"In the past, there's just been huge [employee] turnover because of that. And to be able to bump so many up to what's closer to a living wage is huge," Watkins said.
Regarding employee turnover, "it's not just custodial jobs, it's skilled trades, administrative staff," Watkins said. "They come in and get trained and they move on because they can make money somewhere else."
Classified staff positions refer to those jobs outlined in the state's Higher Education Uniform Classification and Compensation Act of 2017, according to UA's staff handbook posted online.
These classified positions are assigned to one of 30 pay grades, and each grade has a minimum and a maximum pay level, as stated in the handbook.
Rushing said that about 70% of those receiving pay increases now earn at least $30,000 annually.
"Eligible employees received a salary increase of $1,200 annually (100% FTE) or greater to reach the midpoint in Grades C103, C104 or C105 or up to $30,000 but no more than the midpoint assigned to their position in the classified pay plan as midpoint is the maximum the university is allowed to provide at this time without additional approvals," Rushing said in an email. He clarified that state approvals would be needed.
Rushing added that the university is "continuing to focus on our goal of adjusting the salaries that remain under $30,000, as the midpoints allow, as soon as possible."
Watkins said the staff senate group has advocated for years for pay increases.
"Our role is just being that constant voice, just constantly advocating all of those involved in the decision-making process that these people, they need more money, literally to survive," Watkins said.
Another group, the UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965 union, has publicly advocated for the university to provide a "living wage" for its workers.
Watkins said she's "extremely grateful" to Steinmetz and top UA leaders for approving the pay increases.
She said there remain issues related to pay, such as what's known as salary compression, which occurs when workers with more responsibility, skills or experience make close to the same amount as more junior colleagues.
"It's a first step. You have to start somewhere. I'm glad to see them start at the bottom and work their way up," Watkins said.
Amid uncertainty caused by the pandemic, the university -- unlike in past years -- didn't give merit raises to appointed staff members for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Last fiscal year, for example, appointed staff members could receive pay increases of up to 1.25% based on a merit performance rating.
But many UA workers this month are receiving a one-time merit payment of 2% of their current salaries, Rushing said. He said 1,170 faculty members, 1,450 graduate assistants, 1,193 nonclassified staff members and 605 classified staff members are receiving the bonus.
However, the most senior administrative staff members are not eligible, and athletic department staffers will not receive the one-time payment either, Rushing said.
University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt last month stated in a letter presented during a meeting of the system trustees that school budgets for fiscal 2020 did not include raises for employees "except in certain specific circumstances."
But Bobbitt stated that he supported a proposal from leaders at the campuses to provide one-time payments to employees in 2020.
Bobbitt's letter stated that board policy allows for campuses to make decisions on compensation and benefits "up to 5% of the budget for that category without my approval."
"I support the proposal and believe it to be appropriate for the campuses, divisions, and units across the System that have sufficient budget capacity to provide up to a 2.0 percent one-time, lump-sum merit payment to employees who would have been eligible, but did not receive, a merit pay increase on July 1, 2020," Bobbitt said. "I believe that this recognizes the hard work and dedication of employees during this challenging period."