Author: Megan Menchaca, Austin American-Statesman, Published July 22, 2022
Even with temperatures regularly exceeding 100 degrees in Central Texas, Sandie Smith often opts to go without air conditioning in their apartment because they can’t afford it. Instead, the science lab technician at Austin Community College’s Highland Campus uses a fan to keep cool.
For Smith, there’s absolutely “no wiggle room” in their monthly budget, which has recently become even tighter with rising rent costs, food and gas prices. Even after making additional sacrifices to make ends meet, Smith said they’re not sure how they’re going to pay for an upcoming rent increase of about $250 a month for their apartment in Oak Hill.
“I have to decide between food, gas and water. I want to run my air conditioning, which I cannot afford to do right now. I have been working with the fan instead of air conditioning, and even rationing how often I come into work. I've been having to take some leave on demand, because I can't afford gas,” Smith said. “It's been bad.”
Multiple ACC employees told the American-Statesman that, like Smith, they love working for the college but don’t make enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in the Austin area, leading some to urge the ACC Board of Trustees to increase wages beyond what is envisioned in next year’s budget.
The board is expected to approve the college’s proposed budget for the 2022-23 academic year Aug. 1. The current proposal would provide ACC employees with a raise of either 5% or $5,000, whichever is more, and the minimum wage would increase from $15.60 an hour to $18. ACC has about 5,500 employees.
Administrators at ACC said that the proposal prioritizes increasing the salaries of the lowest-paid employees and that they can’t afford to boost wages any further without increasing tuition, which they have not done for nine years.
However, some employees are advocating a 10% wage increase for more employees because they’re worried that the proposed raises aren’t enough and could cause people to leave.
'We don't want to leave'
Beau Montano, a senior advising specialist at ACC’s Cypress Creek campus, told the American-Statesman he considers himself lucky because he can afford to pay his mortgage on his salary, with the help of his partner, who lives with him.
Still, he said he has previously had to work extra jobs, such as being a DoorDash driver, and sell his old possessions on Facebook Marketplace to supplement his income and help with the rising costs of gas and food, and he’s “just one car accident or medical emergency away” from having to drain his savings account.
Montano was one of the employees who spoke during an ACC board meeting in June, detailing concerns about the rising cost of living and advocating higher wage increases. He said that ACC academic advisers, who have taken on extra responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, aren’t compensated enough and that a wage increase would be a strong show of support.
“We do truly feel like this is our family here at ACC, and we don't want to leave this family, but eventually if it reaches a certain boiling point, we will have no choice but to do so,” Montano said at the meeting, before clarifying that he was only speaking about himself. “It's just getting really rough down there at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Under the proposed budget, people making $50,000 or less would get at least a 10% wage increase, and the average raise for employees would be about 7.6%. David Albert, a government professor at ACC and president of the ACC American Federation of Teachers union, has been advocating a 10% wage increase for as many people as possible, especially those at lower income levels.
“There's just a lot of people at the bottom of the (salary) pyramid that are struggling,” Albert said. “ACC is supposed to be about creating opportunities and giving people the opportunity to live a middle-class life. It's not walking the walk. It's not doing that for its own employees, in large part.”
'If we could do more, we would do more'
According to ACC, about 67% of its revenue comes from property taxes, 15% from tuition and fees, 15% from state appropriations and less than 4% from other sources. About 61% of the budget pays for salaries and benefits, and the remaining money supports debt service, operating costs, equipment and technology.
Neil Vickers, ACC’s executive vice chancellor for finance and administration, said there’s not enough revenue to implement a 10% raise across the board. He said that the proposal prioritizes giving the college’s lowest-paid employees as much as a 15% increase and that a 10% flat increase instead would give more money to the college’s higher-paid employees.
“We have spent many months hearing different circumstances and developing different compensation solutions,” Vickers said in a media release. “Our goal is to provide the largest lift to our lowest-paid employees. A 10% raise to every employee wouldn’t do that. This proposal lets us provide even more where it’s needed most, and all without putting the burden on students or taxpayers.”
Vickers said though some of the economic difficulties, such as spiking rent and inflation, are not in ACC’s control, the college is listening to employees and doing as much as it can to help with the rising cost of living. He said the wage increases might not be enough for some — or even many — of the college’s employees, but he hopes they will help.
“If we could do more, we would do more, but at some point the budget has to balance,” Vickers said.
Some ACC trustees asked to see the budgetary impact of other proposals, such as a $5,000 or more increase across the board for employees, during the most recent July board meeting.
Vickers said the board has also asked to see a proposal at its next meeting for a one-time wage increase — which would come from the college’s reserve fund — to help mitigate the rising cost of living for employees, although the option wouldn’t be sustainable for the long term.
Smith said anything extra would help the ACC employees who are waiting to see the outcome of the budget vote and considering whether the increase in wages is enough for them to continue to work at ACC.
“ACC is a great place to work. I'm not the only one who would like to stay working here, but it's just not feasible with the salary we've got,” Smith said. “If there's not a lot more, more of us are going to have to leave, and we don't want to do that, but it's not going to be a choice at that point.”