Jason Barkee liked plowing roads one day, fixing sidewalks the next in his job at the University of Montana.

At UM for eight years, he said every day brought something new, and he appreciated the camaraderie of the crew in facilities as well as the energy of the students around commencement.

"Graduation was really special. You get to see a lot of the families and people coming in," Barkee said last week. "And it's an exciting period even for those of us that are working. So it's nice to see people happy."

On Jan. 26, though, Barkee, his wife, and his two little girls, ages 3-1/2 and 9 months, plan to hit the road for Midland, Texas, in search of a better life. Barkee is among some 90 UM employees who accepted voluntary severance offers from UM last month, and he leaves despite his affinity for the campus, the job and his coworkers. 

Last year, his family received an eviction notice at Skyview Trailer Park because the owner plans to build on the site. Barkee earned $13.78 an hour at UM, he said, and his paycheck set against the high cost of housing in Missoula made finding another affordable home difficult.

When UM announced the voluntary severance offers with six months of pay, Barkee said he panicked and grabbed the paperwork — and then waited as long as he could to finalize it.

"I just held out hope that I would find something that would be reasonable, but it just didn't happen," he said of housing.

He considered moving his family in with his mother-in-law, but he figured it wasn't a good option for his marriage and his children. Nonetheless, he said, "a lot of people are doing it."

A cousin of his lives in Texas, and he researched communities in the state. In Midland, he said the cost of living is less and he believes he'll be able to earn at least a third more money. The multicultural city has beautiful parks and good schools, he said, and his daughters will probably learn Spanish.

"It's going to be nice. I keep telling myself that," he said.

So the Montana native who grew up in the Flathead is heading south despite feeling guilty that he's leaving his former coworkers to shoulder even more work than they already are with his departure. 

"Honestly, I feel like a traitor ... to the people who are left," Barkee said.

***

Staff members accepted voluntary buyouts for a variety of reasons, said Maria Mangold, president of the Staff Senate. Many people were already close to retirement, she said, and a former staff member and longtime Senator Kris Csorosz successfully advocated to have retirement benefits included in the severance.

Many other staff weren't nearing retirement but decided to go back to school or change careers, she said. In a happy coincidence, she said, some had other job offers at the same time.

The goal of the voluntary severance is for UM to save money on personnel, and former President Sheila Stearns has stressed that the budget must reduce spending on salaries overall. Employees such as Barkee see little chance for substantive pay increases at UM, and Mangold said wage mobility and compression are issues at UM.

At least a dozen of her colleagues at UM are on some form of public assistance and work full time, Mangold said. Last year, she said Montana State University President Waded Cruzado advocated for moving the compensation plan into the 21st century after seeing a full time employee working a second job at a grocery store in order to make ends meet.

"She was very vocal about it. The leadership is aware," Mangold said.

At a Staff Senate meeting last week, President Seth Bodnar told senators he wanted to cultivate a diverse staff on campus and create a workplace where employees can develop professionally.

"It is my goal to make this the best place to work in Montana," said Bodnar, who took the helm this month.

***

Barkee believes Bodnar will indeed achieve the goal of making UM a prime place to work. He started working at UM in 2010 as a temp and got a permanent job in 2013.

"I believe with his history that he has the ability to do it," Barkee said.

He himself ran out of time to ride it out, though, and the $1.25 raise that might have come his way would have been "more than fair" but not enough for his family. Barkee said he isn't proud to admit it, but he's among the UM employees who have had to visit the Missoula Food Bank to make ends meet.

"I don't like it. And I should go more often than I do. But there's people in far worse shape than I am," said Barkee, who went to the food bank every month or every couple of months. "If I need to, I do. My family and kids come first."

After the Montana Legislature legalized the collection of roadkill in 2013, he said people on campus have shared road-killed venison with each other: "Everybody tries to help everybody here."

If he could have found a job earning $19 or $20 an hour in Missoula, he might have been able to stay in town, but he bypassed chances to work at the city or the county, where he said laborers earn more than at UM. He took a pay cut at UM in exchange for a permanent position, he said.

At a young age, he picked up a felony charge, since discharged from his record. UM hired him anyway and gave him an opportunity, Barkee said. He never tried to hide his record, and his colleagues at UM never treated him differently for it, he said.

"Maybe there's a little bit of loyalty there," Barkee said.

***

At UM, though, he's skeptical that the severance offers are going to help the budget in the long run. The move results in the loss of expertise, and he believes the campus will have to hire new employees for more than people like him were earning.

Yet he said it's people at the top who make a dent in the personnel budget. Barkee has seen the university system give pay hikes to top administrators who are making their way up the ladder, and he noted the increase earned by a state higher education official after a title change.

"They gave him a raise equal to my entire salary," Barkee said.

Wages haven't been the only concern among his coworkers, either: "The politics was becoming unbearable, the morale. We had to ask permission to try to do our jobs, to make sure it was OK to use the materials. And I understand that, but we still had a job to do."

All the same, he's grateful for the benefits at UM, such as the chance to earn his commercial driver's license, and he wishes his wife could have had the opportunity to use the tuition waiver and get her college degree as she'd planned.

He's also thankful a supervisor at UM told him that if Texas doesn't work out, he's welcome to return.

"You don't know the weight that took off my shoulders," Barkee said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.