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Former staffers speak out on working conditions, racial and gender disparity and lack of growth opportunity at college
August 30, 2022
Angie attended Emerson during her undergraduate years and loved the experience so much she enrolled in the college’s graduate program, eventually landing a full-time staff position at the college. 21 years later, she found herself fed up with constant mistreatment and quit—abandoning the “shit show.”
It’s no secret Emerson College has had numerous employee departures in recent years. Throughout the pandemic, Presidential Communications has released several email correspondences to the Emerson community outlining the latest resignations from administrators, faculty, and staff. For staff members specifically, the decision to leave comes down to mistreatment from higher-ups and transparency issues regarding pay and growth opportunities.
The departures reflect a national shift. A July 2022 survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed found that more than half of those that responded were likely to leave their job in higher education within the next year. Of those, 76% are leaving in search of higher pay, 43% want work from home opportunities and 30% seek promotions.
According to calculations derived from the college’s factbook, the number of full-time staff members employed by Emerson College has decreased by a net 2% from the 2018-19 to 2021-22 academic years. Full-time student enrollment for the same time frame, however, has increased by a net 8.1%.
In fall 2019, full-time staff decreased by 2% from the previous academic year. Fall 2020 saw full-time staff rates up 3%, but by fall 2021, full-time staff had decreased by 3% from the previous academic year. Some credit the recent losses to the departure of former President M. Lee Pelton in 2021.
Conversely, full-time student enrollment increased by 1.4% in 2019, decreased by 4.4% in 2020, and increased by 11.1% in 2021. The union is looking to ratify their second contract to improve working conditions, Assistant Registrar and union vice chair Amanda Wade said at a town hall in April, partly in response to the growing number of students and shrinking number of resources.
The staff union ratified its first contract in 2018 which worked to address unfair compensation and job review processes. As the college’s diversity, equity and inclusion values are tested, six former staff members agreed to speak with The Beacon about their experiences working at Emerson College and what led to their departures. All names have been changed for their privacy.
Adjusting the lens on Emerson
When Angie began working at the college in 2000, her department supervisors instilled a “student[s] first, revenue second,” attitude. But after her first manager departed from the college, she found her work environment frustrating and toxic.
She stayed in the same department throughout her career at Emerson and sought promotions quickly. Even with 20-plus years of experience, superiors constantly undermined Angie for open positions. The hiring criteria “wasn’t consistent” with what each job demanded, she said, and staff of color were constantly overlooked.
After watching people of color get pushed out of their positions for years, “written up [to HR] to the point where they’re forced to quit,” she contacted the college’s Social Justice Center to make sure she wasn’t just “being crazy.”
“[Emerson] transformed my life, but at the same time, what was happening as a staff member and witnessing gender and racial discrimination behind the scenes, it was just getting harder to stay,” Angie said.
After she left, coworkers and superiors alike labeled her as “uncooperative,” according to friends still within the institution, perpetuating the “angry Black woman” stereotype she felt had already been applied to her.
“As a student, you see the college through a certain lens, but there’s plenty of staff members who were former students, and the same people who are [saying], ‘Oh, the college needs to be more inclusive,’ are the same people who commit some of the most—excuse my language—fucking racist acts,” she said.
The lack of transparency surrounding promotions and pay raises also caused former Information Technology staff member Nick to leave in 2021. He started in 2017 and took issue with how compensation was handled, noting that every employee in his department was paid around the same wage—including someone with roughly 30 years of experience. When he sought a promotion, he ran into multiple roadblocks.
“I had applied several times for a manager position,” he said. “The first time was about a year into me being there, and I was told that I didn’t have enough experience, that they wanted eight years. I believe I had seven at the time.”
He was told to run more projects and seek manager training—“jump through hoops”—in order to be considered for the position. He did everything the administration asked of him, he said, and still received no promotion.
Nick wanted to implement a 24-hour help desk employee for senior leadership, and his management approved the position. Later, he said, the vice president of his department pulled him aside and informed him the position no longer existed.
After, Nick was offered a management position that a coworker of his had just turned down because of the pay rate, but when he tried to negotiate his salary, the vice president rescinded the offer, hired someone else for the position at a much higher rate, and told everyone Nick turned the job down.
He was offered an entry-level salary because Emerson wanted to give him time to learn how to do the job, he said, even though he was more qualified than an entry-level employee.
When Nick left Emerson, he reached out to the VP to end on good terms, offering to stay in contact with student workers and other higher-ups if they had questions about the logistics of the job. Nick said the VP responded, “We’ll be fine once you’re gone.”
“I definitely still have a lot of love for Emerson, but there are certain people at the top that are holding the glue of the foundation of the IT department back,” he said. “There was a very toxic work environment at the end [of my time at Emerson]. Everybody had to tiptoe around because they were afraid of repercussions and how the VP would treat us.”
Helen returned to Emerson as a staff member a year after completing the college’s graduate program. Like Angie and Nick, Helen took issue with the college’s staffing practices, especially after the college cut faculty and staff retirement funds and cut pay raises for staff.
In 2020, Emerson cut these benefits because of pandemic-related financial difficulties, with the promise to resume contributions to both upon a full-fledged return to campus. As of fall 2021, the college resumed retirement fund contributions and doled out the option of a one-time payment to staff members that was equivalent to 3% of their salaries.
The staff union continues its fight for members’ benefits. Competitive pay is a huge point of contention between the union and the college in the union’s next contract, Wade said, but the staff union hopes to negotiate a wage increase that’s proportional to the cost of living in Boston.
“As soon as COVID hit, the school was like, ‘We’re gonna start laying people off unless you guys give up your raises,’ so we gave up our raises, and then the school had a record enrollment and still wouldn’t reinstate any kind of raise,” Helen said.
Eventually, when a new manager took over for her department and began treating her as an entry-level employee, Helen began to seek support from the staff union. She shared screenshots of Slack messages between her and her manager with members of the staff union, who confirmed that they were “insulting.”
“They helped me make sure I was safe and helped talk through potential outcomes,” Helen said. Still, she departed Emerson because she felt like she wasn’t valued, and she “couldn’t bear it anymore.”
Helen wasn’t the only staff member to turn to the staff union for guidance during their time at Emerson. Wilma left the Instructional Technology Group department in March 2022, citing pay issues. She was in charge of inputting and synching Canvas courses, troubleshooting Panopto and other learning tools, among other things.
She utilized the staff union when the former provost Michaele Whelan announced the return of the full time in-office work week for Wilma’s department in 2021. Initially, she experienced difficulty pushing back against this by herself, as she has a sensitivity to fragrances and was unable to explore remote work as an option. Additionally, she was not allowed to set her office as a fragrance-free zone.
An HR policy restricted Wilma from requesting co-workers wear masks in the office, spiking her anxiety about the spread of COVID-19. The staff union facilitated conversations between staff members and their managers combatting this situation.
“We were like, ‘What parts of our job aren’t being completed successfully remotely?’ and we never really [got] an answer,” Wilma said.
While management has pushed for a return to campus, the staff union feels working from home is now a vital option—and remains vocal about it. Launched in November 2021 by the union, the Unity Unmuted podcast discusses several facets of the staff union. Hosts Amanda Wade, Korina Figueroa, and Emily Belanger talk about their ideals within their own union, and, in their most recent episode, discuss the impact of working from home as a result of the pandemic.
“Pushing an idea for bringing back the Emerson community in-person ignores a large part of the community for which that vision of community does not work,” Figueroa said.
Wilma tried to have her position reviewed twice because of how many additional responsibilities she had taken on since starting. The first time, she filed a formal job review, and the second, she informed her supervisor about a job offer she was considering. She figured the timing was right—a male coworker of hers had just gotten a promotion along with a salary increase to the next grade level.
Wilma said she was willing to accept less of a pay raise from Emerson than she was being offered elsewhere if they approved the salary she requested. Misinterpreting the statement, her supervisor tried to increase her responsibility along with her salary and made no counteroffer, so she left the college.
Available on Emerson’s Human Resources website are the 2022 salary ranges for staff members that fall into each grade. Grades 12 through 23 are posted, with salaries ranging from $27,600 in the former’s minimum percentile to $234,100 in the latter’s maximum. According to Wilma, most staff members at Emerson fall into the 40th percentile of each salary grade, making between $33,700 and $176,200. A living wage calculator for the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area suggests a salary of $46,918 to meet the basic needs of one adult working full-time with no children in the city of Boston.
Most of the staff members in Wilma’s department start out in grade 16, with a salary ranging from $50,500 to $80,700 per year, she said. Since she essentially developed her own job description, Wilma considered her position in grade 17, which offers a salary ranging from $60,600 to $96,800 per year.
Promotions in general are difficult to obtain, said Christine, another former Emerson staff member. She worked at Emerson between 2015 and 2019, but was never considered for a higher position.
“[Management] would not allow me to apply for other jobs [at Emerson] because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “Really, you don’t fucking need one.”
She felt her opinion was “only valuable when it was convenient,” as Emerson kept her on hiring committees for people who would be her supervisor.
Along with the lack of opportunity, Christine reported a lack of flexibility with her beauty school schedule. Though it is typical for staff members to have set hours, other coworkers of hers were able to switch their shifts without consequence.
“I was there from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and there was nothing I could do to change that,” she said.
For the first three years of her post-grad life, Carla worked at Emerson. Like others who left, Carla sought more opportunities to grow in her career and asked her manager to keep her in mind if something opened up. As months went by, Carla noticed a lack of communication regarding other opportunities beyond the usual “we have all these things, we’re working on them.”
“It just became very clear to me that the leadership team as a whole was the one causing confusion,” she said. “It felt like the college itself would rather spend money on bells and whistles.”
Carla was the only staff member from her department to return full-time to campus and had to collaborate with fully remote coworkers who could not aid her with in-person responsibilities like student workers.
Her breaking point came in September 2021. Over the summer, Carla and her manager worked to finalize her promotion and revise the job description to encompass the duties of another coworker who was stepping down. Roadblocks with Human Resources and department VPs undermining the value of the promotion slowed the process to a near halt, leaving Carla contractless by the end of the summer.
Her manager, believing Carla had received her promotion, left the college, leaving one of the VPs in charge of overseeing the transition. Immediately the VP invited Carla to a Zoom meeting “out of nowhere” to confirm her new role, sans documentation. When she mentioned the contract, he made excuses.
“It was a very disarming situation, both as a woman and just in general,” she said. “They want to pay me peanuts to do a job another man did for $20,000 more a year.”
After she declined the promotion, it was offered to a different male coworker, who also turned it down for salary-related reasons. The same coworkers who chided Carla for turning down the role were glad he hadn’t taken it because “the pay was too low,” she said.
Carla emailed her manager, the VPs, HR, and the union, outlining her disappointment with Emerson within her situation and in the handling of other employees’ cases.
“I didn’t have any good concrete examples. I didn’t have any good documentation and it just wasn’t really a fight for me that would have been worth staying for and trying to deal with,” Carla said.
Carla remembers being shocked at the number of women who left Emerson around the same time she did. When she started, she said, most of the employees in her department were under 40 and women—a “unique” experience in her department.
“The fact that we saw such a mass exodus when someone in an important role—a caring female manager—leaves, and a lot of other women leave, you have to think about how those women were probably doing all the work,” she said. “They were probably upholding everything, because there’s certain things women are expected to do.”
Human Resources declined to speak to The Beacon and redirected to the college spokesperson Michelle Gaseau. Gaseau declined to comment on “anonymous allegations” on the college’s behalf.
As they negotiate their second contract, members of the staff union draw on support from the Emerson community, including students. Those who have left the college agree that Emerson won’t make necessary changes to its staffing practices without the support of the student body.
“We are very focused on what’s happening at the table, and we are really coming to realize more and more that it’s as important, if not more important, to make sure that our constituencies are aware of everything,” Wade said.
The biggest movement from the college comes from student involvement, Wilma said, referencing the reaction she received from higher-ups during her first contract negotiation when students put staff in their favor.
“When students come out and support the staff union, that’s a huge morale boost for the others in the union,” she said. “That’s a ‘Yeah, we’re doing something worthwhile.’”
Vivi Smilgius contributed to the reporting of this article.