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story.lead_photo.caption Kassandra Salazar (left), a sophomore at the University of Arkansas from Rogers, speaks Tuesday, April 5, 2016, to a group of 11th-grade students from Heritage High School in Rogers as they walk past Old Main while on a tour of the university campus in Fayetteville. - Photo by Andy Shupe

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will seek state approval to raise the pay of 585 full-time staff members earning less than $30,000 annually, a spokeswoman said.

UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz in March said the university has "been alarmed by higher turnover in some positions," stating a goal to raise salaries to at least $30,000 for all full-time appointed employees.

University spokeswoman Amy Schlesing said in an email that a request to increase the workers' pay will be submitted for approval "in the next few months" to the state Division of Higher Education.

If the request were approved, not all workers would immediately see their pay rise to at least $30,000, Schlesing said.

"ADHE approval allows us to move 395 of those eligible staff to $30,000 or above and the other 190 to just above $28,000. We hope to be able to get those employees above $30,000 in 2021," Schlesing said.

At the state Division of Higher Education, "our staff reviews these requests, then sends to the personnel subcommittee of [the state] Legislative Council for review also before final approval is granted," Alisha Lewis, a division spokeswoman, said in an email.

Clerical workers, housekeeping and groundskeeping staff members and "physical plant" maintenance employees make up the bulk of full-time employees at UA earning less than $30,000, said Michael Pierce, vice president of the UA-Fayetteville Education Association/Local 965 union. Pierce is an associate professor of history at the university.

"If you think about this, during the pandemic these workers are even more essential to the health of the students," Pierce said. The university has described stepped-up cleaning as part of its efforts to reduce the risk of covid-19 spreading on campus.

"Having people who are invested in the university performing those vital, vital jobs makes everyone safer," Pierce said.

The union has approximately 45 members, the group's president, Bret Schulte, said last fall.

"This is a long overdue and desperately needed raise for many UA employees," Schulte said in a statement earlier this month.

Annual pay of $30,000 works out to $14.42 per hour, based on 40 hours of paid work every week.

An increase in the state's minimum wage to $10 per hour took effect Jan. 1, but Schlesing said all of UA's employees were already making more than that amount by the beginning of the year because of the pay plan laid out in state Act 763 of 2019 for higher-education compensation.

In 2018, the union group began its Living Wage campaign to boost pay for UA's lowest-earning workers and for graduate student assistants.

"For the last two years, we have argued that UA employees deserve better. Those voices have been heard, and answered," said Schulte, an associate professor of journalism.

Pierce called the effort to boost compensation "a process," adding, "We're not done."

"We also have to realize that this is a year of a pandemic where universities are talking about furloughing people, talking about laying people off. For Chancellor Steinmetz to be able to engineer wage increases for a good number of people who are truly deserving of them is an amazing thing," Pierce said.

In December, a UA spokesman said the university had 1,337 faculty members, 2,999 appointed staff members and 870 hourly employees.

Unlike in other years, the university has not given 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.

Steinmetz, speaking via videoconference on Friday to faculty members, said that "there is a chance we may see some ability to do salary increases later in the year." He noted that despite the pandemic, the university has avoided furloughs and has not had to reduce its workforce.

A letter from 82 graduate student assistants sent earlier this month to Steinmetz asked for increases to their stipends, citing the pandemic as a reason for UA to take immediate action.

Master's students at UA who are graduate assistants currently earn a monthly stipend of $1,043, while the minimum monthly amount is $1,159 for Master of Fine Arts and doctoral student graduate assistants, according to Kim Needy, dean of UA's Graduate School and International Education.

Needy said in an email that there is a university effort to raise the minimum monthly stipend but that this will not be in place by the start of the fall semester.

Steinmetz said Friday that his goal is to raise stipends so every graduate assistant receives a $15,000 stipend for a nine- or 12-month appointment.

"But the problem is, I've got to figure out exactly how to pay for it. That's what we're working on," Steinmetz told faculty members Friday.

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