The Instigator: UGA's FLSA Nightmare
In 2016, Over 3000 workers were affected negatively by UGA's implementation of FLSA. These workers received only half a paycheck in the month of November, and that money will not be recovered until we quit, retire, or move into an exempt position.
These guidelines have since been suspended by a court order and seem likely to be rolled back under the Trump administration, and while it is tempting to leave this episode in the past, the bitterness of the debacle lingers, and reviewing the story offers a window through which to assess the more general problems UGA employees face and to imagine a different future where they wield a strong, independent voice. A group of concerned employees got together and formed a Union.
The FLSA rollout was worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge
Thousands of UGA workers headed into the 2016 holiday season short half a month’s pay from what they had expected. They were told that this was necessary due to a chain of necessity: the US Labor Department mandated that they be eligible for overtime; Georgia state law requires that overtime-eligible employees be paid at least twice a month; USG policy insists that such a pay schedule can only be done via hourly pay; UGA’s antiquated payroll system requires a delay of eight full days to process biweekly paychecks. They forgot to mention the last and most crucial link in the chain: UGA workers have bills that need to be paid and that cannot be delayed.
It’s no mystery why things played out as they did. The weak link in this chain, the one where inconvenience and pain was most easily overlooked or suppressed, was the last one. Staff had only one representative on the planning committee, and he was overmatched, overwhelmed and outgunned by bureaucrats who kept telling him the way things had to be.
Where was the political will to press the Board of Regents and the Georgia legislature for a revision of payroll rules?
Remember “Kirby’s Law” (SB 323), passed by the Georgia legislature and signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal with enthusiastic haste in early 2016? Named after new UGA football coach Kirby Smart, who made a special visit to the Gold Dome in Atlanta to lobby for the bill? "Kirby's Law" protects the Athletic Department from open records requests by allowing the department to shelve them for 90 days. It's perhaps worth pointing out that Coach Smart is paid $3.75 million per season and that his salary is not subject to sudden interruptions before Christmas.
At the FLSA information meetings organized by UGA, employees were subjected to a barrage of platitudes and absurdities.
Affected staff were offered a cold brew of double-talk and indifference: UGA was not really holding back pay, employees simply had a “rolling balance”— in other words UGA might be holding back a thousand of our dollars at any given moment, but every two weeks it was swapped for an entirely different thousand dollars. The Christmas-time rollout was unavoidable because the administration had hoped that the law would be repealed. So how did other USG institutions like Kennesaw and Tech manage to implement this meager mitigation? At the FLSA forums the modest request was raised to rebate or subsidize parking fees for the few weeks surrounding the rollout. Predictably the response was that this was simply impossible, that no funds were available for such an initiative. The absurdity of this assertion will be evident to anyone with any experience with the ways UGA has been able to find money over the years to cover expenses in academic and athletic emergencies. But personal budget crises of the staff brought on by inept planning at the higher levels? Not important.
Staff felt powerless and voiceless.
Workers were afraid of reprisals or belittlement if they tried to air their feelings, suffering for rules that were never adequately explained, paying for mistakes made by the powerful. The powerful work in groups: administrations, legislatures, steering committees. Meanwhile, University governance for faculty and staff puts us into silos, keeping us from communicating and supporting each other.
We take UGA administrators at their word that they would rather that this fiasco hadn’t happened, but we live in a society whose first premise is that no one is better suited to look out for your interests than you yourself. In the case of UGA's FLSA implementation, those involved in the planning process were not the employees who would suffer, so no one found the motivation to test the chain of pain for a different link that might be interrupted.
Let’s create a forum where all voices are heard and respected.
We at United Campus Workers of Georgia are striving to create a forum where all voices are heard and respected. We envision a broad alliance reaching every sector of the UGA workforce and call on all employees at UGA to band together to fight for the working conditions of all on campus.
What good will it do to organize?
We already know from the recent past that campus organizing works: back in 2006, the Living Wage Campaign resulted in an increase of the minimum hiring rate for UGA workers from approximately $12,000 annually in 2006 to $31,500 as of the 2023 Fiscal Year.
So together let’s build an environment where our ideas are given a fair shake.