UC service workers, the people who maintain the campus, clean the hallways, bathrooms and the dorms do what might be considered a thankless job. Their work is needed to keep this campus running, and yet for all they do people around this campus don’t seem to care what happens to them.
For any problem on campus there tends to be a worker who can fix it. The workers at UCI act as the blood does in our bodies, moving vital components from one part to another, powering projects and fixing whatever is broken. When people in your classes complain the air conditioner or the heater isn’t working the professor calls the maintenance team, when your professor can’t get the projector to work they call technical assistance, when people complain the bathrooms or hallways are dirty (which they rarely are) the administrators call the custodians to clean it up. What we often don’t see, however, is those who clean up our messes and maintain our school; people who have their own wishes and dreams.
One such person is 47 year old Carlos Barajas, a maintenance worker at Mesa Court. Barajas, who was born in Mexico, like many workers at UCI, immigrated to the United States at the age of five. He went to school here in California and attended Cal State Fullerton before working at UCI. He is married and the father of two middle school age daughters. His family lives in Santa Ana.
“I wish I could afford to live in Irvine,” he says. He works hard in the hopes that his children can live a better life than he did.
Barajas, a 17-year veteran, deals with issues affecting student housing.
“We do maintenance, customer service, we make sure the kids are in a safe environment. We do electrical, plumbing, painting, anything that needs fixing we do,” Barajas said. In short he is one of the workers who ensures that residents have a safe place to live. Though the job can be stressful he does it knowing that his family is being provided for.
Things don’t seem to be looking up in the near future, however. The UC Regents announced a revision for service workers’ salaries on Tuesday Sept. 24. The plan forces service workers to increase their contributions to their health plans, and cuts their pay by 1.5 percent, therefore resulting in less take-home pay for service workers. Only service workers were targeted, not high level administrators. UC Service workers are the lowest paid working staff in the UC system and it is estimated that as much as 95-99 percent of UC Service workers are eligible for federal or state public assistance. Needless to say the workers are not happy about the recent turn of events.
“Nobody likes it because we’re taking less money home for our families and now we have to cut down on everything you know. It’s hard to pay for rent, paying for food and gas money especially.”
Barajas hopes one day that his two children will be able to attend a high quality school such as UC Irvine, but acknowledges that his family will not be able to afford the costs if the price of higher education continues to increase past the rate of inflation. The price of higher education increased at twice the rate of inflation in 2011. Barajas hopes his daughters can find a way to fund their education.
“I told my little girl to keep her grades up so maybe she can get a scholarship.”
When he is not worrying about their education he enjoys spending time with his family and playing softball, on the weekends. Barajas did not say what his salary was, but he said it was “hard to pay bills.” However even with the pay Barajas receives he likes his job and believes his workmates do as well even if they don’t like their pay.
“They love their jobs, but it seems now they can’t survive on what we are getting, [what] we take home. Everybody is not happy with what we take home.”
The cuts made under the service worker salary revision were unpopular and aroused criticism of UC administration from many people, including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299 Communications Director Todd Stenhouse.
“What you need to realize is that these cuts were imposed and they were supposed to be bargained in good faith and UC bypassed that process and unilaterally imposed a contract on about 8,300-8,400 service workers,” Stenhouse said.
The AFSCME 3299 union represents all workers within the UC system and believes the workers are being neglected by the administration. However UC administrators deny the charge and argue that the charges against them are unfair. Shelly Meron, a media specialist and representative for the University of California Office of the President defended the cuts saying in a public statement “the compensation package that we give service workers is very competitive.”
Both sides believe they are right and won’t back down anytime soon. Debate over the issue of wages is likely to continue and is not new to the UC system as any Google search for “UC pay cuts” will show you. So what does this all mean for workers like Barajas and the other service workers across the UC system? It means they have to get by on less and that can affect their families as well. It means they have to serve a student body that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that many of them are living from paycheck to paycheck.
Sometimes we forget that UCI’s service workers face real issues and hope to realize real dreams. It’s time to acknowledge their work, because in reality, without them, this university would cease to function.