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Regent raises concern over University of Iowa minimum wage increases

'I am certainly going to oppose that,' Regent Larry McKibben says

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IOWA CITY — To keep in step with the job market as county rules increasing the local wage threshold take hold, the University of Iowa Housing and Dining department plans to keep phasing in higher salaries for its minimum wage employees.

Those increases are expected to cost the UI department about $750,000 more in salary expenses, which is part of the reason officials are asking the Board of Regents to approve a 2.9 percent increase for its most popular double residence hall room and meal plan — a $164 increase for a standard double room to $5,861.

But at least one regent has concerns about continually rising room and board rates and doesn’t support a UI minimum wage increase to keep on par with the Johnson County ordinance.

“I made it clear that I oppose following the Johnson County minimum wage at the University of Iowa,” Regent Larry McKibben said about comments he had made during Thursday’s board meeting in Ames.

Last year, Johnson County supervisors approved raising the local minimum wage in increments from the state rate of $7.25 an hour to $8.20 this past November, to $9.15 in May and to $10.10 in January 2017. A few communities have opted out of the increase, but the rest are moving forward at least for now.

Johnson is the only Iowa county that has approved the higher wages, although Linn County has started discussions about the pros and cons of doing so.

The UI is Johnson County’s largest employer, but its employees are on the state payroll. As such, the university initially said last year it was likely to follow the lower state requirement. But a few months later, the UI announced it would increase its wage threshold to stay competitive with other employers in the area.

The Board of Regents at its April meeting will vote on the proposed room and board increases. For the most popular double room and meal plan option, it amounts to a 3.5 percent increase at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa and 2.9 percent at the UI.

McKibben said a $750,000 increase in housing and dining salaries is “unacceptable,” even if the wages are to keep the UI workers from looking elsewhere for jobs.

“That is running up costs for students and families,” McKibben told The Gazette. “And I am certainly going to oppose that.”

Johnson County, he said, is “out of step” with the rest of Iowa, and charging UI students more for room and board than those at ISU or UNI seems unfair.

“I am not going to have the additional cost pushed over to students and families when we are trying to decrease debt,” McKibben said.

Room and board rates already are higher at UI than at ISU and UNI, McKibben said the institution should try to keep more increases down.

“This minimum wage thing is going to make it go even higher away from the other two, and that is just wrong,” he said.

UI officials — talking about the institution as a whole — told McKibben they have not yet decided whether to follow the phased minimum wage increases for all employees. But UI Housing and Dining Director Von Stange said his department is moving forward.

He, too, is concerned with rising costs for students but also worried about losing student employees to a more competitive market.

“We want to be competitive,” Stange said. “We are hearing from students that they can work more hours for more money off campus. I can’t change the number of hours they work, but I can change the rate we pay them.”

He said his department needs additional revenue through room and board increases to accommodate the competitive pay. And, Stange said, if the board rejects the proposed increase, UI Housing and Dining either will face losing workers or making cuts — or both.

The university’s housing and dining system operates with about 1,300 student employees. The university has paid them $8.24 an hour since August and plans to increase to $9.50 after the spring semester, Stange said.

But, Stange said, the department already is understaffed, which has meant overtime expenses.

Regents President Bruce Rastetter also expressed concern about the proposed increases, although for a different reason. He said the universities have been working toward purchasing collaborations in a variety of areas including dining services.

And, he said, this is the last time he would support any meal plan increases without movement on a more collaborative dining-services purchasing agreement.

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