The University of Southern Maine took back two controversial pay increases to top administrators following backlash from USM community members as well as members of the public.
The Portland Press Herald originally reported about the 44 USM employees who received $242,000 in raises for this fiscal year on March 22.
Members of the classified staff — a group that’s been without a contractual raise since 2008 and has been working without a contract since July — were particularly infuriated by the salary increases. Classified staff are hourly positions, unlike salaried professional staff.
Gail Wartell, president of the university system classified staff union’s USM chapter said she’s never seen her members as upset about an issue. “They feel bad. They’re angry,” said Wartell, an administrative assistant for Professional and Continuing Education. “It’s not about blaming who got something. It’s a little more about equity.”
The raises came while USM is scrambling to find $5.1 million in budget cuts for the year. The raises garnering the most controversy were given to Bob Caswell, executive director of public affairs, and Tim Stevens, special assistant for planning and project development and senior adviser to USM President Selma Botman — both of whom received raises of around 20 percent.
Shortly after the article was published, Stevens and Caswell told Botman they would to take their raises back if it helped the university, according to Assistant Director of Public Affairs Judie Alessi O’Malley. Botman took them up on the offer, and after clearing it with human resources, Botman announced in an email to faculty and staff Wednesday afternoon that she was rescinding the raises.
Caswell said he wasn’t prompted by anyone else to volunteer to have his raise rescinded. “If it helps to underscore the fact that the university is serious about listening to these concerns,” Caswell said he told Botman, “then take it back.”
Stevens received an 18 percent raise, from $89,500 $106,000. Caswell saw his salary rise 21 percent, from $87,788 to $106,000 for this year. They have been paid the higher salaries since raises went into effect in October. The lower, original salary amounts will take effect next paycheck at the end of April.
O’Malley said she’s been told those are the only raises that will be taken back.
All other classified staff The Free Press interviewed affirmed Wartell’s statements about the general feelings regarding the salary increases. Staff members said conversations between themselves and others about the raises, and jabs at administration have been common since the story broke. One staff said others joke about how everyone will be OK — as long as they’re administrators.
Arline Palmer from the American and New England Studies program said many were particularly bothered about the timing of the raises, since Botman told the colleges in February that they would each have to cut an additional $1 million from their budgets. “And then to find out a few weeks later about the raises,” said Palmer, “it was pretty distasteful.”
Members of the classified staff expressed displeasure at the fact that they’ve been working without a raise since 2008, and some said the raises for top administrators sent a message as to where the university’s priorities fall.
“It’s true the university system can come up with money for some things,” Wartell said, referring the the raises for Caswell and Stevens.
Wartell was also critical of the Portland Press Herald’s coverage of the raises, objecting to their decision to group all the raises together in the front-page story. She said she’s spoken with several members of the classified staff union, encouraging them to differentiate between the different raises. Wartell cited the coverage of Monique LaRocque, executive director of university outreach, who received a 41 percent increase as a result of merging her former boss’ position with hers and others in the office.
Wartell said USM should be commended for hiring from within for this position and found grouping her on the cover with Caswell and Stevens distasteful.
Staff said the mood amongst them is still tense despite the announcement that USM is rescinding two of the raises. Wartell declined to comment on the classified staff union’s response to the raises being rescinded. Instead, Wartell emphasized the importance of looking at university as a whole and the value of classified staff for the school.
“It’s a group of people who want to make you happy,” Wartell said. “We’re the ones that keep things running.”
Following the first Press Herald article, University of Maine System Chancellor James Page halted all discretionary salary raises for UMS employees. The Press Herald reported that Page will examine the recent raises given through the Salaried Employees Compensation and Classification Program — a system-wide program that allows employees to request a review of their position to see if they should have higher pay for their workload.