I’ve often told young college shoppers: Don’t just consider how strong the academics are, or how good the football team is, or even how you like the campus or the town. All of those are good questions, but make sure you also ask: “What do you pay your housekeeping staff?”
One of the true tests of a good college is how they treat their workers, and certainly a decent indicator of that is how the lowest paid workers fare in contrast to the highest paid administrators. A good question of any college president is if he or she would be comfortable exchanging salaries for a year with the janitor. After all, both are just as valuable in the eyes of God.
So it was a great privilege this month to be invited to chapel at my alma mater, Eastern University, for “Housekeeper Appreciation Day.” Celebrating the unsung heroes of the campus is becoming a beloved tradition, and it is a wonderful one.
In the presence of the president, deans, administrators, and hundreds of students and faculty, dozens of campus workers were put into the spotlight and celebrated for their tireless work to keep the campus alive and beautiful. There was a genuine love thick in the room – hugs, tears, and I caught glimpse of a fist-pound or two. Then they were given a certificate of appreciation and a paid vacation day, because more than 200 students committed to pitch in so they could take off.
I had students tell me about how housekeeping staff tutor them in Spanish. And I had housekeeping staff tell me how students had been there for them during really hard times.
It all reminded me of when I graduated from Eastern and moved into North Philadelphia, only to find out that I already knew one of my neighbors. He was one of the housekeeping staff at Eastern. I will never forget the ear-to-ear smile he greeted me with when I first moved in across the street, and the bear hug he gave me.
I hope that every worker on every campus feels as warmly welcomed as I did that day. Twenty years later, we are still friends. This summer, on a hot day, I jumped into the spray of a fire hydrant in the middle of the block with my friend’s aging parents. It was magical. I barely remember (because I’m old now), that our friendship began as I was a “student” and he was “staff”— before we were family. I am proud of how Eastern University continues to think outside the boxes, categories, and labels to try and build authentic community. But community is not easy; it takes intention, time, imagination, and vulnerability. And it takes money to pay people a living wage. Justice isn’t cheap. Even now, a new contractor will be coming in to oversee the housekeeping staff at Eastern, and there was a bit of uncertainty, even anxiety, amidst all the joy. But I heard someone say, “Love casts out fear.” And I know that it is true. When we love people well, we cast out the demons of fear, insecurity, loneliness, and shame. It’s easier to live without fear when we know that we are loved.
So do something to celebrate someone today who might feel like an outsider. And don’t be surprised if later they return the favor and help you feel the love when you might feel like an outsider.
So there’s some homework for you: find out the salary scale for lowest vs. highest salaries in your college, church, or organization. My friend Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s) says it shouldn’t be much more than 6:1 (so if one person makes $10 per hour, no one should make more than $60 per hour). [NOTE: The average CEO is making 380 times their average worker, meaning the worker needs to work an entire month to earn what the CEO makes in an hour.]
Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President.