View Comments (1)
SIU staff weather people and money shortages
October 26, 2022
Still bogged down in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions and governments in the United States have only just started establishing normality again after years of rent crisis, stimulus checks and expensive COVID countermeasures. At Southern Illinois University (SIU) in particular, after six years of declining student enrollment, many departments have complained of understaffing, low wages and strain on existing employees.
“We currently only have three full time engineers when in the past we’ve had seven,” said an anonymous student worker within SIU’s Information and Technology Department that we’ll call Seth. “With only three, you’re running the entire campus internet and Wi-Fi, Ethernet and making sure that we’re also secure as well, because if we don’t have security, or have the correct procedures in place then we could be compromised and get hacked.”
Seth and several others within this article asked to remain anonymous to avoid backlash from SIU and are referred to using pseudonyms.
According to Seth, the three full-time employees his workplace does have are doing well at keeping the school secure and connected to the internet, but they are often stressed and overworked. At any given time, two of the three full time employees are required to be on call for repairs at the school, requiring them to stay within a certain radius of the school. This means that full-time employees can’t visit family that isn’t within the radius, travel during weekends or even go to certain parts of Carbondale, and each worker gets only two out of every six weeks off-call.
“That includes holidays, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, every single holiday. […] They’re having to take all this time and be on call, and they’re only making – I think the lowest is $37,000 dollars a year,” Seth said.
According to him, three employees isn’t enough for each employee to specialize in tasks and train student employees using the same procedures the department did before. Instead, full-time employees rotate between different aspects of the job, which ranges from maintaining network infrastructure physically, to managing firewall security from a computer. Seth and 15 other student employees are required to pick up the tickets that the constantly rotating full-time employees don’t have time for, leading to situations where there are no full-time employees present to explain more complicated work.
“Since we take care of all the internet on campus, that includes dorms,” Seth said. “So if something happens and a whole dorm building can’t have internet, then you have students that can’t do tests, can’t do homework, and they’re just inconvenienced.”
The Information and Technology department has several large projects going on at any given time, such as upgrades to the east campus towers. During these large scale upgrades, many of which are decades overdue, workers still have to patch up other areas of the network before failures become critical and take down entire buildings.
According to Seth, this can all lead to student workers feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Though he remains well within the bounds of SIU’s mandated 20 hours per week maximum, Seth often has to worry about work when he’s not on the clock.
“I feel like there should be at least three student employees per full time employee and I do believe that the number of full time employees should be seven,” Seth said.
He said the department is perpetually forced to continue as it is, under the time-addled mantra, “It’s not in the budget.”
Elsewhere on the campus, other departments also feel the budget restrictions.
“We’re down a nutritionist, a respiratory specialist, and several nurses, but it’s the same way in Health Centers all across the country,” said Jamie Beckman, the president of the Illinois Nurse Association’s branch at the Health Center. “Covid drove market value [of skilled medical labor] up so high, you could be making $100 an hour as a travel nurse.”
Especially around the time of the pandemic, Beckman remembers times when the Health Center went for over eight months without a single application for nursing jobs, despite having multiple positions open.
SIU’s online job postings show offerings of $15.14 per hour for a “Staff Nurse I” position and $17.35 an hour for a “Staff Nurse II” position requiring one year of experience, compared to Indeed’s average of $38.44 per hour for an Illinois nurse with less than a year of experience. However, the Illinois Nursing Association’s recent 2021-2026 contract with SIU states the new minimums for those positions are $19.30 and $21.47 respectively.
“It’s just hard to get people when they’re paying 18 dollars at Target,” Beckman said. “The nursing union negotiates for pay separately from the other civil [service] employees, and that’s why we’ve been able to get several raises before this 2% raise.”
As of January 1, 2022, medical office associates’ minimum wage went up to $14 an hour, and medical office specialists’ went to $15.50 thanks to the negotiation power of the nursing union. However, the nursing union was only able to secure a .75% raise in their 2021-2026 contract, failing to keep up with 8.2% inflation in this year alone. Even after a 7.81% increase in the university’s unrestricted category funds (which include tuition) during the 2022 budget year, the school’s attention to staff’s needs hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
The reason for the penny pinching on the schools part is simple: SIU doesn’t have enough students. Though Chancellor Austin Lane recently discussed the issue in September, telling the Daily Egyptian that SIU’s student enrollment rate was stabilizing, SIU has come a long way from the 17,000 students it had in Fall 2015. Currently the student enrollment rate hovers around 11,000, inching toward the round number over the past few years.
In the past, Lane hasn’t hesitated to single out low student enrollment as the issue. At a board meeting back in July, he said staff salaries are directly correlated to the number of students enrolled and have been frozen since the 2015 Illinois Budget Impasse caused SIU to lose 6000 students.
Lane’s own salary was raised by 2% to $346,812 not including his $65,000 bonus and $35,000 housing allowance.
“It’s shameful,” says Cathy, a full time employee on SIU campus. “Employees are struggling. They’re struggling financially and they’re struggling mentally and emotionally because there’s not enough staff.”
Cathy estimates six people are needed in her workplace, which currently only employs two people.
“People either choose not to take their breaks or are not able to take their breaks – their paid 15 minute breaks – because it’s just contant activity all the time. There’s not a moment where you can really do that.”
Unsatisfied with their pay and treatment from high ranking employees, Cathy and others at her workplace are restless for change but find the working environment to be intolerant of employee complaints. According to her, employees at her workplace were forbidden from speaking to the Daily Egyptian without permission from administration, causing fear and frustration to accumulate unvoiced outside the protection of a union.
“I just think that there would be backlash at the very least. I either wouldn’t be able to work there anymore, or they would find a reason to get rid of me,” Cathy said.
Overly suppressive workplaces aside, many employees remain satisfied with their jobs and the services they provide overall.
“I’ve worked in healthcare for 15 years, and I’ve never seen a workplace not have staffing problems,” Beckman said. “We can handle it. SIU may not pay as well as hospital work, but there are benefits to working here as far as Monday to Friday [weekends off], holidays off, and health insurance.”
Beckman has a chronic health condition that requires her to pay over 10,000 dollars a month for medication, but thanks to a good insurance plan through the school, her out of pocket cost is 35 dollars a month.
She’s also grateful for the half-off tuition for employees’ children and free tuition for employees.
“We have two nurses who are going back to get their BSN right now. All four of my children have gone or are going to SIU and I’ve got to utilize the half off tuition for three of my children,” Beckman said.
No matter what changes at SIU, Beckman and Seth said students can still rely on their respective services.
“At the end of the day we’re busy, but we’re here for the students.” Beckman said. “Come to the Health Center.”
Daniel Bethers can be reached at [email protected] and on instagram at commonitem6damage.
View Comments (1)