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University of Montana president Seth Bodnar attends a meeting of staff senators last week, telling them he wants to make the campus the best place to work in Montana.

Staff in Missoula who work for the Montana University System were largely satisfied with their jobs last year — but dissatisfied with wages and opportunities for advancement.

That's according to a Montana University System Staff Association survey from March 2017.

More recently at the University of Montana, a survey noted 245 classified staff out of 354 had taken on duties outside their job descriptions, yet some 82 percent were not earning additional compensation as a result.

"Definitely, wages are a huge concern for us," said Maria Mangold, Staff Senate president.

Quinton Nyman, executive director of the Montana Public Employees Association, said the voluntary buyouts last month mean many open positions at UM won't be filled. And he said people who are left need to be properly rewarded and should not be expected to take on unpaid tasks.

"How are we going to be sure they are compensated for their duties?" Nyman said.

Last week, UM President Seth Bodnar told staff senators he wants to make the campus the best place to work in Montana, and Mangold agreed compensation is part of the equation.

At the same time, she said the imminent priority is the staff still at the university after the departure of some 90 people who accepted voluntary severance offers.

"Right now, I'm most concerned about supporting the staff who remain on campus," Mangold said. "We're committed to this institution. The people who are still here, we want to do a good job. We want to serve students."

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Nyman, head of the MPEA, said he believes there's generally a $10,000 gap between earnings of a university system employee and those of a worker in another state agency. At the same time, he said the figure doesn't represent an apples-to-apples comparison of positions.

But retention in the university is evidence there's an issue, Nyman said. In looking at starting dates for union members in the university system, Nyman said the vast majority started anywhere from 2010 to 2015, the most recent five-year period.

On the other hand, members of the younger workforce aren't staying at jobs as long as older generations.

In Montana, though, Nyman said campus jobs historically were considered supplemental income for spouses who worked at the paper mill or lumber mills. That's no longer the case.

"As those jobs went away, these (campus) jobs have become mainstay jobs, and they don't pay the bills," Nyman said (see related story).

Of course, as head of a union, he believes employees should earn well working for a public institution: "They should be able to go to work for a living wage."

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Kevin McRae, head of human resources for the Montana University System, said one school of thought advocates that public institutions be "pay leaders," while another wants government to be as frugal as possible.

"We just try to focus on what is a logical, rational, meaningful wage and salary to allow us in the state of Montana to hire and keep, to recruit and retain good people to serve students and the public," McRae said.

In the late 1990s, he said the system launched a redesign of its staff compensation, and it transitioned in a way that would be neutral to staff pay in a worst-case scenario. He said the redesign was completed in 2005 with labor representatives.

"Nobody got a pay cut 'cause that would not have been much of an incentive," McRae said. "In some cases, people got pay raises."

After evaluating job titles and average wages, the university system decided that it generally would be in the 25th percentile of pay in the state, meaning 75 percent of Montana employers pay an average wage that's higher.

"We made that decision because we could not afford to establish an entry range any higher than that," McRae said.

The benchmark established the lowest pay, but not a target wage, he said: "That's not our goal. That is simply the lowest possible wage, the minimum entry that can be paid to anybody in the system."

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On the other hand, McRae said benefits are good and jobs are meaningful in the university system. Staff have the opportunity to help students and also earn some $13,000 in health insurance and a full tuition waiver for themselves and a partial wavier for dependents.

McRae also said the university system makes exceptions to entry pay when the market demonstrates a need. If a campus has difficulty recruiting and retaining certain positions, it may make "strategic adjustments" and authorize a higher entry rate of pay.

He believes the MPEA-estimated $10,000 gap between the university system and other state agencies would probably greatly diminish if it were more of an apples-to-apples comparison. For instance, he said the university system has many lower-paid positions, such as custodians and food service workers, and other state agencies have some higher-paid employees, such as Fish and Game wardens and patrol officers. So straight averages might reflect different types of jobs rather than gaps between similar jobs.

"If you peeled the onion, I think it would show that there's not substantial disparity between state agencies and the university system," McRae said.

He also said university system staff have received more pay increases over the last 40 years, including within the last 10 years, than those outside the university. Bargaining is currently underway, but he also said he doesn't believe the university system will be able to match the 1 percent raises that employees outside the system may receive in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

"We've got some challenges," McRae said of the university system.

State revenues came in lower than expected last year, and the Montana Legislature held a special session in November to address the shortfall. The financial challenges exist in higher education despite Gov. Steve Bullock's budget proposal that largely protected campuses, and the Montana Legislature's affirmation to largely shield the university system.

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In the past, Nyman said some campuses used to move staff from classified positions into contracted positions in order to pay them more, but roughly a decade ago, he saw a "pretty serious clamping down on that activity." He said the perception is that it took place at UM, but he believes it happened more at other campuses.

Regardless, Mangold said it appears that Montana State University has been more savvy when it comes to restructuring jobs in order to provide higher entry-level wages. Also at UM, she said staff can be discouraged to see that a student can earn $9.50 an hour when many staff came in at $10 an hour; the current minimum pay for staff is $10.70 an hour, according to staff compensation guidelines. 

At least a dozen of her coworkers use some type of public assistance as well (see related story), Mangold said. While workers might be dissatisfied with pay at UM, she said they also might stick around.

"Missoula has a pretty saturated job market. We educate people really well and people love it here and they don't want to leave," Mangold said.

In the last couple of decades, public funding for higher education has dropped, Nyman said. He said he hopes people understand the six mill levy that will be on the ballot in November is a reauthorization — not a new tax.

"The decline in public funding for the Montana University System has been dramatic, and we are now seeing the effects of that," Nyman said.

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University of Montana, higher education