A one-time payment can’t address an ongoing crisis
Additional measures must be introduced to address the increasing cost of living
On Oct. 19, MIT’s administration sent an email announcing a “special one-time payment” of $1,500, pre-tax, for some eligible employees, which MIT will provide in response to concerns about inflation and the financial challenges it has posed. The payment is set to be included in December paychecks, but MIT has made no mention of any recurring bonuses in the future. As employees, we are grateful for the payment; however, a stand-alone bonus is not a long-term solution to the rising cost of living. MIT employees need real relief in the form of a cost-of-living adjustment to our salaries.
Changes in the actual cost of living in Boston
Terra is a long-time employee of the Institute, and Jordan is a newer employee. Comparing situations at the beginning of our tenures at MIT is instructive. Using the CPI calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site , we looked at salary and cost of living increases. Comparing Terra’s starting salary at MIT in 1990 and Jordan’s in 2020, CPI-adjusted, Jordan’s starting salary was similar.
However, over the last 32 years, many essential living expenses in this area have increased at a rate far exceeding overall inflation. In 1990, Terra was able to afford to share a four-bedroom Philly-style apartment in the Central Hill area of Somerville with four friends, with rent at $1,250 per month ($250 per person). According to the CPI calculator, that amount adjusts to $2,784 ($557 per person) in late-2022 dollars. The rent estimate on Zillow for that same apartment today is $4,964 ($993 per person, now listed as five bedrooms), an additional increase of 78% beyond inflation. That’s in line with the price-per-bedroom cost for apartments in older (ostensibly more affordable) housing stock in the area today.
It’s possible to find less expensive housing outside of the Boston metro area, but then it becomes necessary to take the commuter rail ($90-$426 for a monthly pass, which is only 60% subsidized by MIT, as opposed to the monthly T pass, which is fully subsidized,) or drive. The inflation-adjusted price of the used car Terra bought in 1987 is $5,165 in late-2022 dollars. A search of later-model used cars today shows that the prices of similar vehicles start at around $10,000. For employees, the cost of parking on campus is capped at $1,995, or about $166 per month, and the average cost of gas has also risen faster than the rate of inflation, if only by a relatively modest 24%. Factor in the time spent commuting as well, and the savings from living outside the city are greatly reduced.
According to an October 2022 article in Money , overall inflation from October 2021 to October 2022 was 8.2%. Meanwhile, grocery prices are up 13% during that time period, and natural gas is up 33.1%. At the same time, we have expenses that are considered essential that simply did not exist 30 years ago, such as cell phones and home broadband service.
The impact on employees
The rising cost of living has required employees to make difficult decisions. Some have had to find second jobs to make sure their bills are paid. Some have felt like they need to leave MIT for a higher-paying role despite wanting to stay at the Institute. Until September 2022, Jordan lived in an unsanitary apartment covered in cat litter with three other roommates, two of whom she felt unsafe or uncomfortable around, because it was the only way she could afford paying rent while still saving money. The toll these living conditions had on her mental health was beyond what she had ever experienced. Despite this, she still second-guessed whether leaving to live in a safer, more sanitary environment would be feasible because her rent would double and eat into two years of savings.
MIT employees should not have to sacrifice our wellbeing or leave the jobs we love in order to get by. MIT is a resourceful institution capable of making a massive impact on the quality of our lives. Providing employees relief would also be mutually beneficial for MIT and those who work here. Employees would suffer less burnout and perform more efficiently if we weren’t constantly worried about finances, working extra hours at other jobs, or wishing we had the wiggle room to afford things that contribute to our wellbeing. We could focus more on the needs of our students if we were not so overwhelmed by our own needs. Employee retention would be greater if employees didn’t feel like they had no other choice but to leave due to financial burdens. Without relief, other than the one-time payment, stress and tension will continue to grow.
MIT’s annual merit raises have been holding steady in the vicinity of three percent for at least three decades. On average, this has been barely enough to keep pace with inflation, and certainly not enough to keep pace with the actual cost of living in the Boston metro. It is past time for MIT to start offering cost of living increases rather than just merit raises and address job performance as a separate issue. We know that MIT has financial resources available for this type of expenditure because MIT just gave a significant raise, on the order of up to 20%, to our Postdoctoral Associates starting Jan. 1, 2023, which the Institute will subsidize for the first year.
Working at MIT wasn’t always so stressful, and it doesn’t have to be this way now. To this end, the MIT Student Worker Alliance has put forth a petition calling for a six percent Cost-of-Living Adjustment increase for all employees, to begin to address our rapidly increasing cost of living. A full-time salary at MIT should be sufficient to support a person in a clean, safe, and hospitable home without their needing to subsidize it with one or more additional jobs. We should not need to spend a large proportion of our waking non-working hours commuting. We should be able to pay our bills while also having time and energy for our families, friends, interests, and public service. These things make us better workers and better people and are simply part of basic human dignity.
If you agree, we invite you to join us and over a thousand other members of our community in signing the petition .
- Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI calculator: https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm
- “Prices for These 20 Items Are Rising Faster Than Overall Inflation“ Money, October 13, 2022: https://money.com/items-prices-rising-faster-than-inflation/
- MIT Student Worker Alliance Petition: http://tinyurl.com/MITinflationrelief