After working as a custodian at the University of Memphis for eight years, 61-year-old Thelma Rimmer only makes $8.94 an hour.
"I can hardly make it," Rimmer said. "I've been up there eight years. I guess they've given me a dollar a year. When I first started, I was making $7.25. There are people who've been there 20 years that are not even making $10 an hour. Most people there have to work two or three jobs [to maintain a living]."
Rimmer is one of approximately 110 workers at the U of M who could receive a pay raise if the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) approves the university's proposal to raise its hourly wage to $10.10 for regular, benefits-eligible employees.
The proposal will be considered at TBR's December board meeting. If approved, the increase would be implemented in January 2015. It would mainly impact custodial workers, grounds workers, parking assistants, and clerks.
- Thelma Rimmer
According to the U of M, the lowest minimum wage for employees in benefits-eligible positions is $8.75 per hour. Currently, the lowest wage paid for that position at the university is $8.88 per hour.
U of M president M. David Rudd said he's been determined to raise salaries for the university's lowest paid workers since being appointed in May.
"We value our employees and believe that raising the salaries of our lowest paid employees is the right thing to do," Rudd said. "We have been working towards this for several years, and our human resources department identified initiatives that created sufficient savings to make this increase possible. It's a critical issue for the University of Memphis and certainly one of our priorities."
The fight to raise minimum wages for employees in benefits-eligible positions at the U of M has been ongoing since 2010. The United Campus Workers (UCW), of which Rimmer is vice president, has been on the frontline in the fight. The organization has been pushing to secure better wages for benefits-eligible employees at all state-based institutions.
The UCW has had moderate success with its movement. In 2013, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville raised minimum wages for campus workers to $9.50 in response to the UCW's campaign.
Tom Anderson, president of the UCW, said although the ultimate goal is a living wage of $15 per hour for all low-paid campus workers, increasing minimum wages to $10.10 is a great start in compensating employees fairly for their labor.
Anderson said the increase could "mean an economic boom for Memphis."
"Even when you get beyond the initial impact of taking home more money, it means increased stability for people [and] increased buying power," Anderson said. "And all the people this would affect spend money in the community, so it supports local businesses [and] the city of Memphis, whether it's house payments or rent or just groceries or getting your car fixed."
Rimmer said she and her colleagues would appreciate a raise to $10.10 an hour, but they still desire an income that allows them to avoid living paycheck-to-paycheck.
"People have families. They want to be able to have a house, a car, take their kids out and let them go do things," Rimmer said. "What do you think the common laborer should make? I think $15 per hour would be just fine. For a person to work 22 years, you don't think they deserve at least $15 to retire? There are a lot of folks at the university that have retired on minimum wage."