An Open Letter to the President of Mills College from the Mills Staff Union

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

Mills Staff Unite
6 min readJun 23, 2020

President Hillman,

The Mills Staff Union recognizes that this is a difficult time financially for the College, as it is for its workers. We are all looking to the beginning of the fiscal year and the coming academic year with extreme anxiety for our students, for ourselves, and for the College as a whole. In a new communication from Mills’ lawyer to SEIU 1021, it appears once again that Mills is examining the prospects of finding savings through staff “reductions” and eliminating retirement matching.

Staff have firsthand knowledge of the impact of fiscal and material disadvantages, from the results of systematic under-staffing and overwork, to working with extremely limited budgets, to the realities that many of us face while living under Alameda County’s poverty line. According to data provided to the staff union by Mills HR, 160 members of the union make less than $69,000 per year, which the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers low-income for a single-person household in Alameda County, as of 2019. A total of 118 members of the union are paid at or less than the California legal minimum salary requirement for exempt workers, which in 2020 is $54,080 per year, with 31 full-time exempt workers making that legal minimum, and the remaining 92 non-exempt and part-time exempt workers making even less. 60 unionized staff are considered “very low income” by HUD at $43,050 or less for a single person, and our most vulnerable 17 members are paid an “extremely low income” of under $26,050 per year for a single person.

It must be noted that these data are not even fully representative of the degree of economic disparity in the staff union, since a number of positions that the union considers as part of the unit have not as yet been recognized by Mills, and many of those workers are paid even lower wages. By current membership figures — which are under-reported by Mills—these data indicate that 90% of unionized Mills staff would fall under a HUD-defined threshold for low-income wages for a single-person household.

According to the Alameda County Human Impact Budget Project, minimal cost of living for a family of three in Alameda County is $66,000, which gives an equivalent quality of life to wages that fall at the national poverty line. Mills takes pride in its Oakland location, and the Bay Area is consistently ranked as having among the highest costs of living in the United States. It is also crucial to note that a significant number of union workers at Mills are Black, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, have disabilities, and are otherwise lacking many privileges that would offset or ameliorate poverty-level wages.

There have been few raises without promotion (other than those mandated by law as the minimum wage increases) and no cost-of-living adjustments since 2011. Workers are disincentivized to stay long-term as they see new coworkers hired at marginally higher wages without parity increases for long-term staff. Most of us have suffered effective wage depreciation from stagnancy, taking on higher levels of work without increased compensation, changes or cuts to benefits, and reduced retirement contributions.

We present these data not to demand immediate relief, but to underscore our endurance and commitment to an institution that has consistently de-prioritized the needs of staff in the face of ongoing financial troubles. It is remarkable that so many of us have remained so long at Mills given these untenable circumstances. We have shouldered the economic burden long enough without transparency, inclusion, and clarity from the Mills administration. We are more than willing to do our part to get our students, colleagues, and the College as a whole through the unprecedented economic challenges of 2020, but we can no longer disproportionately absorb the negative impact of the College’s deficits.

According to publicly available tax documents for the most recently reported year, the “Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, Highest Compensated Employees, and Independent Contractors” for Mills totaled $2,226,342 in reportable and other compensation. Those reported wages are for only 11 people, including the President, with an average annual reported compensation of $202,394.73. To put this in simpler terms, the compensation for those 11 people is equivalent to the wages of 70 of the lowest-paid staff union members.

This is information we had to research on our own. We have repeatedly asked for actual figures of the anticipated deficit, the amount of money Mills needs to cut, the salaries of the College Officers and other highest-paid campus management, and the cuts, if any, those powerful positions will absorb. Other than the President announcing a personal 25% salary reduction in her email dated April 15th, none of these substantive figures have been released.

In light of that ongoing silence and lack of transparency, the union cannot possibly endorse voluntary or involuntary reductions, furloughs, or temporary/permanent layoffs for staff when by all current indicators the burden of easing Mills’ budget deficit falls disproportionately to us. Given that we have not been included in any fiscal discussions, we also have no idea if an individual staff person voluntarily sacrificing 20% of their income (or reducing their hours by one day a week) would make any meaningful difference in Mills’ immediate or long-term prospects.

Many of our colleagues have expressed their desire to help the College and save their coworkers’ incomes and jobs, but a 20% reduction for a worker making $20/hr saves Mills $150 per week. Assuming the 31 full-time staff who make less than $25/hr all reduced their work schedules by 20%, the college would save a total of $4,932 a week, or 59% of the weekly salary of a single highly paid administrator making $200,000 per year. Those low-paid workers would then be additionally burdened by an increased workload to try to cover their needed work on limited time, often in already deeply understaffed departments.

It is both immoral and fiscally ineffective to ask for these cuts from staff without any indicator that the burden will be spread equitably among the most financially privileged on campus.

Given the above facts, the Mills Staff Union demands the following:

  • In real numbers, the total overall deficit that Mills projects for FY2021
  • In real numbers, the anticipated savings from salary and other benefit/remuneration cuts for ALL employees (including staff, faculty, management, administration and officers, contractors, temporary workers, and all others who receive a paycheck from Mills College) for FY2021, with itemized categories for union and non-union staff, faculty, administrative, and all other workers as outlined above
  • In real numbers, the wages of ALL Mills employees (including staff, faculty, management, administration and officers, contractors, temporary workers, and all others who receive a paycheck from Mills College) who make over $130,000 per year
  • In real numbers, both the percentage of anticipated wage reductions and the actual figures of any current and projected wage reductions for all those above employees making above $130,000 per year
  • An absolute guarantee that any salary cuts made would come from those making $130,000 per year or more before any cuts came from anyone making less (union or non-union). Any cuts to those making less than $130,000 per year should not affect anyone making low-income wages
  • A freeze on any planned or impending layoffs or furloughs until all of the above demands are met
  • An absolute guarantee that all eligible staff on temporary layoff, furlough, or hour reduction will receive their full employer-covered health benefits for the duration of that furlough/reduction; and a guarantee that any permanently laid off workers will retain their full employer-covered health benefits for six months from the date of severance
  • In real numbers, figures on the savings from anticipated cuts of retirement matching and how those savings are distributed from union, non-union, faculty, and administration salaries
  • The forming of a committee that includes members of the staff union, adjunct faculty, faculty, non-unionized staff, and members of the college administration to transparently address and work through Mills’ current crisis together, without misinformation or siloing, and with consistent all-staff and all-faculty updates
  • Clarity on Mills’ request for voluntary furloughs/reductions, including answers to the following questions: Can a furloughed staff person be fired or laid off during a furlough? Is a furloughed staff person guaranteed the ability to return to their job? How long would a furlough or hour-reduction arrangement last?

We require answers to the above demands by the end of the fiscal year and/or before any decisions on cuts are made, whichever is first.

Staff are demoralized and excluded from crucial decision-making processes that directly affect us and the entire college. Mills staff are committed to helping ameliorate the current financial crisis, but we cannot continue to bear the disproportionate burden, and we cannot continue to subsist in an information vacuum. Mills and all its staff have a renowned commitment to equity and social justice, and those values must begin at home.

Mills Staff Union



Mills Staff Unite

Mills College staff formed a union with SEIU 1021. Join us to make Mills a more equitable and sustainable place for staff and the students we serve.