TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 166: How should a Catholic college set employees’ wages and benefits?

Right after graduating from this Catholic college nearly twenty years ago, I went to work for admissions doing recruiting. After a few years I became secretary to the vice-president for finance and administration and worked for him until last year. Then I was promoted to my present job: administrative assistant to the academic vice-president—which makes me a member of the administration, though just barely. This year I have been appointed to the wages and benefits committee. Within the limits set by the overall budget, it has the job of recommending to the president changes in the pay and fringe benefits of everyone from the president himself down to the students we employ part time. On the committee, which is chaired by my former boss, are three members of the administration (including him and me), three faculty members, and three people from the “staff”—that is, all the other people who work in the offices, maintenance, food service, housekeeping, security, and so forth.

We have been in a budget crunch for the past several years and still are. The college has done everything possible to meet enrollment targets, but registrations have fallen short, and tuition and other charges cannot be raised without worsening the situation. As usual, too, the cost of health insurance is going up—this year so much that, if the college picked up the total increase, that alone would take the whole three percent available for increases in pay and benefits. In the past three years, the college has taken on about one-third of the increased cost of health insurance, given all full-time employees a total increase of four-and-one-half percent, and, of course, increased the pay of individuals who were promoted. Part-time employees, mostly our own students or high school students, are paid the minimum wage and receive no benefits.

The budget crunch has been hardest on staff members. Some of the best people have left. Many staff vacancies have not been filled, so the people who remain have had to work harder to get their jobs done. Wherever possible, part timers have been used to fill in, to avoid paying overtime to staff members. Formerly generous holidays and vacation time have been cut back, and even their modest Christmas bonus has been eliminated. With the small percentage increases in wages, the lowest-paid staff members, including most of the people in housekeeping and food service, actually are taking home less today than they were three years ago, due to the increase in FICA tax, their pension contribution, and, especially, the deduction for health insurance.

No segment of our staff is unionized, and it would be exaggerating to say the staff people are demanding a better deal. They are unhappy, however, and a couple of the more articulate ones are arguing that the staff as a whole is not being treated fairly. One of them spoke up at a community forum the president held in September, pointing out that a Catholic college should follow the Church’s teaching on a family wage, and that the lowest-paid staff have been falling behind for several years, while top administrators and faculty, who already were making enough to live on and whose children also can enroll in the college without paying tuition, have received raises of thousands of dollars. (I happen to know this is true. Over the past five years, the president’s salary has gone up by a sum greater than the wages of one of our lowest-paid, full-time employees.) While recognizing the college’s financial difficulties, this articulate staff member argued that, as long as the budget crunch continues, the limited funds available for increases in pay and benefits should be divided equally among full-time employees rather than distributed unequally in proportion to present wages, which range from as little as twelve thousand dollars per year to over two hundred thousand.

The vice-president for finance and administration acknowledged the problems of the lowest-paid employees and said he would like them at least to stay even. But he maintained that financial realities limit what the college can do. It would be easy enough to distribute available funds equally—for instance, by applying the whole amount available for increases this year to the increased cost of health insurance, so that no one’s deductions and paycheck would change. But doing that repeatedly, he argued, would soon cause essential employees to resign. Already some of the electricians, carpenters, and other better-paid staff have quit, and others soon will unless the college offers wages and benefits competitive with other employers in the vicinity. The same is true of faculty and administrators. The most capable people are very mobile, and are unlikely to stay here long if their compensation does not keep pace with that of colleagues in other colleges and universities.

Seeing the point of both arguments, I have what seems to me a very difficult problem: What position should I take when these issues come up in the committee? I suspect I was appointed because my old boss assumed I would be a safe vote yet credible with staff people, having gotten to know most of them over the years and being on friendly terms with them. But my sympathies are with them, and I am personally inclined to come down on their side. If I have a clear position and can make a good case for it, I am sure all three staff members on the committee will support it, so that, if I can win over one of the three faculty members, we would have a majority. While the president need not follow the committee’s recommendation, he always has done so in the past, and I think he would this year too. Of course, if I do this, I probably will not be on the committee next year!


This question calls for application of the norm regarding just wages, judgment according to the Golden Rule, and the derivation of norms for the questioner’s work on the committee. The committee’s primary objective should be to determine what the college community owes its members in justice. If committee members acknowledge that even a single person without dependents cannot live decently on wages of twelve thousand dollars per year, they should determine how much the college owes its lowest paid full-time employees, and recommend that the available funds be used to satisfy that debt. If any funds remain, applying the Golden Rule probably will indicate that they should be used to maintain take-home pay for those employees less able to bear the increased deduction for health insurance. If the available funds are insufficient to fulfill the college’s strict obligations toward its employees, the questioner should urge the committee to recommend that the budget be revised and the necessary funds be raised. The questioner should recommend that a more representative body be established to consider both the long-term problem of just pay and benefits, and the question of how to make appropriate restitution for underpayment to current and past employees.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Members of a community asked for advice on important matters or given an opportunity to influence policy all too often think only about the interests of their own segment of the community, take their responsibilities lightly, or mute their contribution so as to maintain their position of influence. Your attitude is commendable insofar as you are concerned about the staff people falling behind, are conscientious about the committee’s work, and are not anxious about whether you will be on it again next year.

The principle of authority in the college is its common good. That should be the basis for all policies and decisions, including those regarding employees’ pay and benefits. As with any community, just relationships among all who share in the college’s life and work are essential to its common good. In a Catholic college, moreover, as in every Catholic community, justice should be transformed by charity so as to become mercy—the justice of the kingdom (see LCL, 360–71). The college’s financial problems are important but subordinate; they concern necessary means, not ends. Urge the committee first to consider what the community owes all its members, and only then how to solve its financial problems so that it can fulfill its obligations to its employees.

While the Church teaches that all workers should receive a family wage, that teaching does not mean every employer must pay each adult, full-time employee enough to support a family. Families’ needs can be met in part by tax breaks and public assistance programs.371 However, the absolutely minimum just wage for a full-time worker surely must provide at least sufficient benefits and take-home pay to meet all of an individual’s genuine needs, that is, everything required to live a morally good life: food, housing, utilities, health care, clothing, transportation, retirement savings, and at least a minimal level of participation in religious activities, civic life, interpersonal relationships with relatives and friends, personal cultural development, and recreation (see GS 67; LCL, 801).

You say the lowest-paid, full-time college employees receive twelve thousand dollars per year in salary, plus benefits, including part of the cost of their health insurance, and opportunities for overtime have been eliminated by filling in with part-time workers. Though that no doubt meets the college’s legal obligations, you should ask the members of the committee to put themselves in the place of those making twelve thousand dollars a year and ask whether that level of pay would seem to them adequate as a living wage. I doubt that they will be able honestly to say yes. If not, the first priority should be to determine the minimum that must be paid each full-time employee to bring his or her compensation for next year to the amount surely required by justice.

If any funds remain, I suggest you next ask the committee to put themselves in the place of other low-paid, full-time employees, and consider whether a reduction in take-home pay would be acceptable. I doubt that any will be able honestly to say yes. If not, the next priority should be to determine how to allocate the remaining funds so as to maintain this year’s level of take-home pay for employees who cannot easily bear the increased deduction for health insurance, or, at least, to minimize for them the reduction in take-home pay that the budget inevitably will impose on some.

What if there is not enough money in the budget to cover the pay increases due the lowest-paid employees? Urge the committee to recommend that all available funds be used for this purpose and that the budget be revised to provide at least enough additional funds to achieve it. If the necessary funds cannot be raised in some other way, you might suggest a special fund-raising effort. If the college’s need for funds to do justice to its lowest-paid, full-time employees is explained clearly to all its better-paid employees, alumni, students, students’ parents, and friends, the necessary funds probably can be raised.

What if your efforts fail and there is little or no improvement in the way staff employees are compensated? Your account suggests that the employment market is least favorable to them, so that they lack the leverage to obtain more favorable consideration. Perhaps you should suggest to some of your friends among the staff employees that they examine the possibility of organizing a union. They certainly have both a legal and a moral right to do that. Still, taking such an initiative might not be worthwhile, for it would involve risks, the most serious being that one or more ineffective or corrupt unions would organize the employees, with little or no benefit to staff members and, perhaps, much injury to the college as a whole.

I also think you should urge your committee or some more appropriate body to recommend that a special committee be established to study the long-term problem of pay and benefits for all employees. It should be charged with developing proposals to assure wage scales that are both just to all employees and sufficient to retain desirable employees for whose services other potential employers are likely to compete. Its charge also should include studying the college’s obligation to make restitution for past injustice in underpaying employees and proposing a plan for fulfilling that obligation.372

If your college is like most with which I am acquainted, one reason why it is difficult to do justice to all members of the community is that the administration tries to manage the community’s finances unilaterally instead of organizing cooperation to deliberate about common problems and find mutually acceptable solutions. Staff members, especially, are not treated as community members but servants. Therefore, I also would propose that the special committee be elected by all segments of the college community so as to be truly representative, and that its charge be presented to it as a common concern of all—a problem to be dealt with by everyone’s sharing in sincere dialogue.

Generous cooperation by all members of the community will be necessary to solve the problem. If the better-paid employees—administrators and senior faculty—agree to a fairer distribution of the college’s payroll and settle for somewhat less pay than they might receive elsewhere, they will put into practice the justice to which most well-educated Christians pay at least verbal respect. Administrators could cut their own expenses and work harder, so that they will be able to reduce the size and cost of the administration by attrition. Faculty members, likewise, could eliminate nonessential expenditures and accept a somewhat heavier teaching load. In their quarters and around the campus, students could be neater, more careful, and more considerate, thereby lessening the work load of staff people and allowing reduction by attrition to continue without overburdening those who remain.

371. John D. Callahan, The Catholic Attitude toward a Familial Minimum Wage (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1936), argued that all adult, male, full-time workers deserve a wage adequate to support a family. However, though employers ought to make a substantial contribution to the support of male, full-time workers’ families, the Church’s teaching does not clearly specify the employers’ obligation beyond that of paying at least a living wage to each individual employed full time (see LCL, 765–67). Moreover, social and economic changes since the 1930s have complicated the matter; see Bryce Christensen et al., The Family Wage: Work, Gender, and Children in the Modern Economy (Rockford, Ill.: The Rockford Institute, 1988). Though these matters deserve fuller treatment, I set them aside here, and insist only on the demand of strict justice that every worker be paid at least an individual’s living wage.

372. Since the obligation to make restitution is only to do now what is fair, all things considered (see LCL, 452–57), the college’s capacity to rectify past injustice, both with respect to present and past employees, limits its duty to do so. Also, restitution, at least in some cases, would not need to be by cash payments but could take the form of credits toward tuition.