- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - The University of Memphis is considering paying a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour and stepping into a national debate over how much workers should make for their efforts.

University President M. David Rudd told employees in an email last week that he’s asked the state Board of Regents to raise base pay for the school’s workers up from $8.75 an hour.

For more than three years, unions and social activists have called for sharply higher minimum pay at U of M and other employers throughout the city. But wages have only slowly climbed.

U of M went ahead with a request for higher pay after paring spending in its tight budget.

Memphis labor leader Tom Smith told The Commercial Appeal (http://bit.ly/1t8MH0N ) the 15.4-percent increase would apply to about 125 employees at the city’s largest university.

“This is an extremely welcome move,” said Smith, lead organizer in Memphis for United Campus Workers-Communication Workers of America Local 3865.

Rudd’s email singled out efficiencies in the university for opening way for the raises. Higher wages could cost U of M about $350,000 next year, according to one estimate.

“For the past several months, we have been evaluating employee salaries and looking for ways to create an affordable living wage for our lowest paid employees,” Rudd’s email says. “While we can all agree that we have experienced challenging times, thanks to your hard work and dedication we have made great progress in creating efficiencies and positioning the University for continued growth.”

In 2011, Local 3865 and the Memphis religious group Workers Interfaith Network began urging then-U of M president Shirley Raines to increase the college’s minimum wage. Raines retired in 2013. By then the university was embroiled in budget issues Rudd inherited when he took over this year. A steep drop in enrollment had created a $20 million gap in U of M’s $478 million annual budget

In February, Rudd announced plans to trim costs in academic affairs by $10.6 million. Another $4.5 million in planned cuts are due this budget year.

In raising their minimum wage, public schools like U of M have no official guidelines. In 2013, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis raised its base wage to $10 per hour.

While many employers rely on the federal $7.25 standard, Tennessee has no state-mandated minimum wage.

Rudd’s email came on the heels of Memphis City Councilman Myron Lowery’s call in September to raise the minimum wage in the city of Memphis. He has not specified an amount.

The U.S. Congress enacted the minimum wage in 1938 after decades of debate and opposition from business groups. President Barack Obama backed a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016, but Congress hasn’t approved the measure. Obama has raised minimum hourly wages for federal contract workers to $10.10.

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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com

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