Louisiana colleges debate the minimum wage

More than 300 people in Louisiana could see an immediate bump in their wages because a Centenary College administrator says he was moved by President Barack Obama’s words earlier this week.

Centenary President David Rowe said he reached a tipping point while watching the State of the Union address on Tuesday, particularly the part when Obama said Congress could do more to ensure the economic security of the middle class by raising the federal minimum wage.

While acknowledging that it’s unlikely in today’s sharply divided Congress to increase the minimum hourly rate from the current $7.25, Obama pledged to issue an executive order that would give companies that pay their workers at least $10.10 per hour an easier path to winning federal contracts.

Obama also called on employers around the country to do what they could to pay their workers more.

It’s a message that resonated with Rowe.

“The president laid out a case. It was really a force of moral persuasion rather than regulatory compulsion,” Rowe said. “I felt a call to action. We decided to make a commitment to heed the president.”

Centenary is a small liberal arts college in Shreveport with about 800 students. Rowe’s decision to raise the minimum wage for full-time and part time staff effectively immediately will affect only 25 people.

But Rowe said he was able to convince two of Centenary’s biggest vendors to follow his lead. National Resource Management provides maintenance and custodial work at the school. Sodexo is Centenary’s food service provider.

Rowe said he asked management at both companies to raise the hourly rates of employees who work at the school, and they agreed.

“They quickly and eagerly agreed to join us in this. There was no pushback whatsoever,” Rowe said adding that 311 total employees will be eligible. “This was a manageable amount for us to absorb. We discussed it and made a principled decision.”

It’s a decision that’s unlikely to attract any sort of consensus in Louisiana.

While economists argue over whether changes to the federal minimum wage lift people out of poverty or contribute to rising unemployment, Louisiana’s colleges and universities are trying to determine whether they have enough money in their budgets to follow Centenary’s lead.

LSU President F. King Alexander, this week, said he’d be interested in studying the issue. He noted that it’s easier for a school with a small number of students and faculty staff to make sweeping changes, than it is for LSU.

“There are no discussions going on right now,” Alexander said. “But it’s something I’ll ask my guys to take a loot at. It’s a complicated issue; we’ll have to look at all of the ramifications.’

Southern University President Ronald Mason said raising hourly rates on Southern’s network of campuses is something he wants to do, but can’t because of Southern’s fragile financial situation.

Southern’s money situation has been shaky in recent years as its network of campuses have battled declining enrollment coupled with state budget cuts to higher education.

“We’d certainly love to do that, but we’re just not able to right now,” Mason said.

Representatives from Loyola University and the nine-school University of Louisiana System, which includes the University of New Orleans, Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said there are currently no discussions about changing hourly rates for workers taking place.

A representative from Tulane University said changes to the minimum wage are being considered as part of their current annual planning process.

Dillard University President Walter M. Kimbrough, said paying employees higher than the minimum wage when possible is something he’s been pushing for years, even at his previous stop as president of Philander Smith College in Arkansas.

Kimbrough said all of Dillard employees are paid above the minimum wage, with 99 percent making at least $10 per hour. Those numbers exclude cafeteria workers who are employed through a private company, he said.

Like Centenary, Dillard is a small private school with about 1,200 students.

“This is something I’ve supported for years,” Kimbrough said. “The challenge is that everybody in higher education is pushing to control costs. I think it’s the right thing to do, but the question is, can you afford to do it.”