January 19, 2001

Rawlings Addresses Staff Issues

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President Hunter R. Rawlings III addressed University employees on Dec. 13 in the Alice Statler Auditorium, using the opportunity to reassess and alter some aspects of Cornell’s relationship with its workers.

First, Rawlings pledged to continue the University’s multi-year overall pay improvement process for all staff.

Then, he said, “we plan to do even more for staff in our five lowest pay bands, toward whom we feel a special responsibility.”

Rawlings was responding specifically to the call from the Employee Assembly and members of the community for the University to address the issue of a living wage.

“I was pleasantly surprised [to hear the President address a living wage with employees],” said Thomas Hoebbel, Employee Assembly (EA) representative. “It was something that the EA has had discussions about in the fall, and it was gratifying to hear the President address the issue as well.”

In addition to the commitment to raising the lowest salaries that the University pays, Rawlings announced that Cornell would establish a childcare scholarship program based on financial need. Along with the downtown Day Care Council, the University expects to begin the program in July.

The audience — some 700 employees who viewed the speech in person and others participating through real-time videoconferencing from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y. — responded most visibly as Rawlings committed the University to a partnership with the Employee Assembly in the establishment of an emergency fund to help employees who face unforeseen hardships such as fire, theft, or other tragedies.

“This emergency fund is something that the EA requested, and we are pleased to help get it started,” Rawlings said, while he turned over $25,000 to the Employee Assembly to get the program off the ground.

“It would have taken us two to three years to raise that kind of money,” Hoebbel said. With the seed money now, “it allows us to do what we want to do from the start,” Hoebbel said, and employees will seek to add another $1,000 to the fund on tomorrow at the fourteenth annual Employee/Family Night at the Court event.

Additionally, Rawlings made public the development of a policy that would open a bank of vacation and sick time so that employees could donate their own hours to colleagues dealing with illness or injury.

Mary G. Opperman, vice president for human resources, who will oversee the program’s development, could not be reached for comment.

“The fact is that for every accomplishment, there were staff making it happen,” Rawlings said. “It seems to me that it is important to note their role in our achievements and to remind ourselves that, without the staff, Cornell simply could not run.”

Rawlings linked the University’s recent successes, such as in freshman class recruiting, to all Cornell employees who participate in bringing students to the campus at various levels of interaction, from processing the applications of high school seniors to directing prospective students to the right buildings.

Similarly, Rawlings discussed how employees have played an instrumental role in Cornell achievements, drawing special attention to the National Science Foundation grant renewal for the Cornell Materials Research Center, the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, and construction projects on north and west campuses.

Rawlings highlighted the Lake Source Cooling project as well — “an idea invented and implemented by Cornell staff members that has revolutionized Cornell’s approach to cooling the campus.”

“With typical Cornell ingenuity, they devised a cutting edge project, defended it from its critics and demonstrated that once again Cornell is a university ahead of the curve,” Rawlings said.

“I think he’s looking at the larger picture. [He is looking at] where those salaries fall and how they rank,” said Dawn Darby, Employee Assembly chair.

“I was happy to hear him address the staff and staff issues,” she said. “I was blown away when he discussed salaries and opportunities for staff.”

Darby added, “In comparison to the work we do, we deserve to be compensated higher.”

Many of the employees Darby has spoken with in prior meeting sessions shared this sentiment, she said. She also compiled anonymous reactions to the President’s address in a survey that was distributed after the speech concluded.

Forty percent of the respondents to the survey said that the address marked the first time they had heard the President speak, Darby noted.

“It was clear that the reaction on the whole was positive,” she said, “but it was mixed.”

While many employees found the timing of the address satisfactory and approved of the event’s length and logistics, employees noted several issues about which they wished to have heard in more detail, such as diversity initiatives, safety and future parking plans, distance learning and flextime.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch