Maria Romero can’t support three kids on her annual salary of $30,000. The University of California pays the single mother less than living wages to feed students at a UC Santa Cruz café by day. She cleans boardwalk bathrooms at night. Romero is a central figure in Rico Chavez’s documentary “Hanging by a Thread,” which illustrates the treatment received by the UC workers and staff as opposed to the regents, and their differing lifestyles.
The Student Union Assembly, community studies department and the California Federation of Labor co-hosted a screening and follow-up discussion of the film at Merrill on Jan. 27. The discussion was led by a panel comprising Watsonville mayor Daniel Dodge, associate professor of psychology Regina Langhout, fifth-year student Moses Massenburg, Romero and her translator. They explained the pressures workers face under the UC system for an audience of around 30.
About 40 percent of UCSC workers reside in the Pajaro Valley, which includes Watsonville. This is because living in Santa Cruz is expensive, said Dodge, a self-described “activist who just happens to be the mayor of Watsonville.”
“When we talk about high rents, in Santa Cruz County the cost of living is comparable to Manhattan,” Dodge said.
Romero struggles to make rent in Santa Cruz, and she doesn’t know how she will send her children to college.
“[I] can’t say [I’m] going to pay for it,” she said with the help of a translator. “All I can do is hope for the best and hope my kids are doing well enough in school now to receive grants or scholarships that are going to help them and push them to where they want to, because that’s pretty much practically the only way.”
While the UC provides scholarships for the children of university faculty, many service workers do not know about them, Langhout said. And their family situations make it more difficult to get into a UC. The children still have to get the grades, apply and be accepted before applying for scholarships.
Another financial dilemma is found in the UC’s health insurance plan, the recent changes of which affect faculty, staff and workers.
“The price doubled to stay on Health Net,” Langhout said. “They offered instead this thing called the ‘Blue and Gold [HMO]plan,’ which I’m calling the ‘Blue and Black plan’ because I think it’s more appropriate.”
Not all employees’ doctors are included in the new budget-friendly plan, according to the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the Health Net Blue & Gold HMO website.
“Health Net Blue & Gold HMO features a select network of participating providers,” according to the website. “Due to its narrower size, it costs less for both the university and the employees who choose it … If your medical group isn’t in the network, it means they did not meet the participation criteria for cost-efficiency and access.”
Langhout said she is upset with the new plan because it costs about the same as the previous plan but has limited services.
“Everybody would have to change their doctors,” she said. “UCSC is a big employer in Santa Cruz County and if something like that happened, it could potentially destabilize health care for a lot of people in Santa Cruz County … There’s also the issues of what we’re paying now and people not really having a choice.”
On top of the financial obstacles the UCs put before their employees, faculty and workers are not acknowledged for their work, fourth-year Massenburg said.
“There are some workers who are over-qualified and clean when they understand the appropriate measures for chemicals,” he said. “And some of their supervisors’ supervisors just sit behind desks and push papers, and have no idea what [the workers] are doing. A lot of times the [workers] are put in danger.”
Romero said labor strikes can increase the difficulty of the job, but most workers cooperate through a union.
“Are you going to miss a day of work and fight for what you want,” Romero said, “or are you going to risk losing your job that’s paying for rent and whatever your responsibilities are?”
Dodge said while being on strike can be a “romantic notion,” it’s not a good sign when these employees say things are so bad at this institution that they have to stand up to it.
He credits the UC workers’ oppression to a cycle of near-poverty.
“A single mother, for example, can’t afford to send her children to this academic institution,” Dodge said. “So by the wages that are paid, you’re not allowing for the people who work here, who provide the service to the community here, are not allowed or able to send their children here. What you’re seeing here is keeping working people in the sense of poverty … Everybody is two to three paychecks from being in poverty.”