Hard feelings over raises to key GHC administrators

A decision to grant a 10 percent pay increase to lead administrators at Grays Harbor College, while a wage freeze was in place for faculty and a 3 percent pay cut had been instituted for support personnel has many staff members at the college upset and asking questions about fairness.

Union representatives said the pay situation at the college has made their members feel like there is a de-facto class system between rank-and-file workers who are called upon to make sacrifices in the face of a faltering economy, and the leadership of the college, which, under the same economic conditions, was given raises.

The president of the college concedes that while the timing of the raises may have been less that perfect, they were part of a larger personnel move that was essential to keeping key positions at the college filled. He added that ultimately, pay competitive with other community college administrators in the state will make the college stronger.

“I believe I did the right things for the right reasons and I’m good with the decision I have made. I am not happy with the impact of that decision on the whole college and I will do any and everything I can to move forward with people,” said Ed Brewster, president of Grays Harbor College. “I have talked with people about this. I don’t think that all the feelings have been resolved, but we’re discussing it. They understand better now, I think, what the issues are that are involved, but I think people are still unhappy about all this.”

Employees at the college are divided into three groups: administrators, faculty and classified employees. Administrators work under “at-will” contracts. Faculty members are represented by the American Federation of Teachers union and classified employees are represented by the Washington Public Employees Association.

Brewster did not receive a raise, but increases were given to the three top administrators under him; Laurie Clary, the vice-president for instruction, Arlene Torgerson, vice president for student services and Barbara McCullough, vice president for administrative services. Arguably, the departure of Keith Foster, the former vice president of administrative services, is what set the raises in motion. Foster left to take a position as chief financial officer for the Community Colleges of Spokane, gaining a 30 percent increase at his new position.

When Foster left, Brewster appointed McCullough, then the second in charge of the department, to take Foster’s position. The responsibilities of staff in the Administrative Services Office were reorganized with someone moved up to fill McCullough’s then-vacant position, and one position eliminated. In short, a three-person department became a two-person department and the additional duties were spread to other employees.

In the eight years Brewster has been president of the college, three vice presidents have left for higher pay at other institutions, he said. Brewster said that shortly after Foster quit, the other two vice presidents wrote him letters saying were considering looking for jobs elsewhere; their main reason, he said, was the salary they could make at other colleges. Brewster said he began to do salary comparisons around the state and found that for similar positions, his top three executives were — at $96,000 a year — making roughly 10 percent less than their counterparts. He felt obligated, he said, to give the vice presidents a raise.

According to state policy, Brewster could not give a wage increase to the vice presidents except under two conditions: when someone takes on additional duties or in order to help retain an employee. And it’s the college’s policy that all the vice presidents be paid at the same level, Brewster said. He also said that in order to attract someone to the new position, he would have had to meet the competitive wage statewide, which would have meant an increase.

“It’s not easy to recruit people to come to the Harbor for any position but certainly for higher level positions, “ he said. “I know, had I opened the position for vice president, I would have set the salary at the average for the state, which was where their salaries are now, and that act in itself would have raised salaries (for the other two vice presidents) to where they now are.”

In all, the reorganization saved the college $75,000, Brewster said. Before the raises, the vice presidents made $96,000 a year, after the raises their salary went to $105,000.

Brewster said according to his calculations, his vice presidents’ salaries ranked in the bottom 10 to 25 percent when compared with similar administrators across the state. For faculty members at the college, he said, their base pay puts them in the bottom 10 percent, but he added that some take on teaching overloads, for which they are paid extra, and when the additional work is factored in, their take home pay ranks them sixth among instructors for the state’s 34 community colleges and technical schools.

Statewide budget problems during the recession have forced employee reductions in all three categories of employees. Classified workers say that not only did they have to take a pay cut, but over the past four years they’ve watched the number of workers shrink. The faculty have fared no better, receiving no raises or cost of living increases for several years. Brewster said that by not filling certain positions as people left their jobs, instead of garnering short term savings from salary cuts that have to be made year to year, savings made through attrition are carried forward year after year.

With an expectation of budget cuts from the Legislature and governor, a statewide consortium of community colleges negotiated a 3 percent wage reduction with the Washington Public Employees Association for classified employees. The new contract was signed in 2011. The cut went into effect for the 2012-2013 school year.

Brewster said the college took measures to try to make up for the cut. With savings gained from not filling open positions across campus, the college had enough money to offer voluntary training sessions on Fridays when the college was closed. The purpose was to allow classified workers to work extra hours to make up the money they lost from the 3 percent cut.

Gloria Fenton, a union steward and administrative worker at the college, said the raises for the vice presidents have caused bad feelings across campus.

“I think you have a lot of people hurt by this. I know a lot of people are now looking for other jobs,” she said. “People feel like the staff are taking the brunt of everything.”

For classified workers, union representatives said the issue about the raises is an issue of fairness. They said they see fewer and fewer workers on campus and are asked to do more and more with less, all in the name of surviving a bad economy.

“I don’t think it’s just to give raises in a climate where we are getting 3 percent decreases,” said Randy Karnath a union representative and maintenance worker at the college. “It makes the employees feel not worth anything,” he added. “What is our worth? Apparently not 3 percent.”

Gary Murrell, a history instructor and president of the American Federation of Teachers local representing the faculty, said instructors haven’t received a raise in five years. Murrell said that as the cuts and freezes had come, the message from college administrators has been, “We are all in this together.” He called the 10 percent raise, “Devastating for workers on the campus. … It doesn’t appear that we’re all in this together,” he said.

As for the claim that the administrators’ duties were increased, justifying the raise, Murrell responded that duties for the faculty have increased, too. “So have the faculty’s, so have the staff ‘s and none of them have received a 10 percent raise, or a 5 percent or a 3 percent. … Did no one on the board of trustees say, ‘Maybe this isn’t a good time?’ ”

As much discontent as the raises may have caused, many of the workers who are upset are still willing to give Brewster the benefit of the doubt. The extra training did help people regain some or all of the 3 percent cut.

“They did make overtime available this past summer and they did make enough overtime to mitigate the 3 percent reduction and they were one of the only colleges to do that,” said Dave Schiel, President of the Washington Public Employees Association.

Karnath took it further, “If it was up to him and there was nothing in the contract, we wouldn’t have had the 3 percent cut.