UI staff member faces low wage, financial stress
Lisa Cochran attempts to live her life on $13.51 an hour, but it’s not enough for her and her daughter.
It’s not enough for a sustainable food budget. It’s not enough to save for the future. It’s not enough to pay for the costly out-of-pocket expenses in her daily life.
“The situation has been really dire, daily,” she said. “I’m just stressed out everyday.”
Cochran, 59, has worked as an administrative support staff member in the University of Idaho ITS Department since 2012 and is one of the many UI staff members facing low wages.
To address low staff salaries, Keith Ickes, UI executive director of Planning and Budget, said a 4 percent salary increase for UI employees is the number one priority for UI Administration heading into the legislative session this January.
“It’s a bit of a stretch, it would require both the Legislature and the Governor probably being in support of that motion,” he said. “I don’t know whether I think that will be the case.”
Ickes said two years ago an external marketing firm concluded UI staff members were paid 15 percent less compared to peer averages. With the rate other universities are increasing salaries at, Ickes said he suspects staff members are now paid 18 percent less than those at peer institutions in the region. He said staff members received 2 percent salary increases in 2012 and 2014, but does not think the raises brought UI up to speed with peer salaries.
Ickes said UI employees went four years without salary increases after the economic recession in 2008. He said the Idaho State Legislature did not increase higher education funding after the recession.
As universities in other states began to increase funding after the recession, they could often recruit talented faculty and staff from UI by offering them higher salaries, Ickes said.
Cochran has worked off and on at UI since 1986, when she began working as a parking assistant while earning her second undergraduate degree. She had previously earned a psychology degree from University of Michigan.
After a two-year stint living in France, Cochran returned to Moscow in 2008 with her daughter.
With the economy in a downward spiral, Cochran said there were no daytime job openings. She took a graveyard position as a boiler operator at the UI Steam Plant. She worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and said the job took a toll.
“Working nights is very hard on your head and your body,” she said.
Cochran said she enjoyed learning a trade as a boiler operator, but the graveyard shift distanced her from her daughter. She said the physical work and odd hours made her tired and left her emotionally unavailable.
“I was a zombie, basically,” she said.
She needed a change.
Cochran found an opening in ITS and began the position in October 2012.
Although she took a pay cut of $2 an hour, it was a day job with normal hours. But now, she said the low wages have led to further financial difficulties.
Cochran said she has to take money out of her life insurance to pay for food and other daily expenses. She said she has visited many food banks for assistance.
Cochran said she did not hesitate to participate in the ASUI food bank last year after they opened it up to staff and faculty members. She said there is a social stigma around going to a food bank, but it does not bother her.
“I put taking care of my kid above any kind of social embarrassment,” she said.
Cochran said the wage raises she’s received over the past few years — while appreciated — have not come close to the increase in the cost of living.
Despite her financial troubles, Cochran said she loves the connections she makes with other employees at UI and appreciates the benefits she receives as a staff member. She said her daughter, Madysen, now 16, is able to take online UI courses at a discounted rate through duel enrollment. Cochran said she is also working toward a master’s degree by taking credits at a discounted rate.
Cochran said she purchased an Apple laptop for her daughter through a UI program that allowed her to pay it off over two years.
Cochran said she has considered getting another job to sustain her and her daughter, but worries she will not have the physical or mental stamina to perform on two jobs.
“I’m not young anymore, I’m not 30 anymore,” she said. “And there aren’t any high paying jobs out there.”
Cochran said she hopes UI will receive the funds it needs to provide a living wage for UI employees. For now, $13 an hour will have to do.
“Why, when I’m working a full time job at a university, do I have to supplement my life — my life is modest — with dipping into my retirement funds?” Cochran said. “To me, something is wrong with that picture.”
Ryan Tarinelli can be reached at email@example.com