STAFF Q&A/Standing up for the rights of Penn’s weekly-paid staff is all in a day’s work for this Wharton School administrative assistant.
As an administrative assistant in Wharton’s Healthcare Management Department, Sylvie Beauvais spends her workdays assisting two professors with research, publishing and managing classes. She also answers the phone, organizes files, creates and updates databases and interacts with students.
For a few hours every month, though, Beauvais leaves her work study student in charge of the phone and crosses campus to College Hall, where she sits down with the President and Provost of the University to talk about issues that directly or indirectly affect her and the several thousand other weekly-paid staff members at Penn. As chair of Penn’s Weekly-Paid Professional Staff Assembly [WPSA], Beauvais sees her role as twofold; she helps her constituency get the most out of life at Penn and she works to make sure Penn is paying attention to the wellbeing of its weekly-paid employees.
Q. Why did you get involved with WPSA? Are you one of life’s joiners?
A. I wasn’t until I came here. The department I work in is a very small department—I think it’s the smallest department at Wharton, and we’re in a separate building—so I had very little contact with the outside world and I was just really curious about Penn and wanted to feel more a part of the University at large. It was exciting for me to realize that there was a way for staff to really actively participate, and it seemed to me like a very nice embodiment of democratic principles.
Q. What sorts of issues are unique to weekly-paid staff at Penn?
A. One of the issues we run into again and again is that weekly-paid employees are very much bound to their desks and their only time off during the day is lunch. The student lifestyle is fairly flexible. The faculty lifestyle is relatively flexible and even the salaried employees have more flexibility in their schedules. But if you’re part of the administrative core then you have to be very much in the office most of the time. So we kind of have to keep reminding everyone that we are bound by different rules and that impinges our ability to participate as freely as we might wish.
Q. What kind of specific advocacy does WPSA do? I know in the past there was disparity in the retirement benefits offered to weekly- versus monthly-paid staff and WPSA fought to close that gap.
A. And right now there are other disparities. Someone called my vice chair on Friday and asked why the pregnancy benefits are different for the monthly-paid and the weekly, so we’re currently looking into that. I’m sure there were reasons and logic that went into the creation of the plan, but it’s good to have a set of employees engaged and able to voice concerns when we find things like this. So we’re still doing research and we may bring it up through a committee and say, ‘Does it still make sense?’
Q. Tell me something you’ve accomplished for WPSA that you’re particularly proud of?
A. One thing came up in Council last year when the Library did a survey of its users. They sent out 10,000 emails and they had every classification of student and faculty, adjunct and associate, lecturer, all the schools. And how many staff got emails? Zero. I do research on the Library site constantly because I assist two professors and so I have a much deeper sense of what is or isn’t available. So I said, ‘You should probably include us.’ The University is an educational institution. That means faculty have to teach and students have to learn, but there’s a sense that the staff as facilitators are kind of the invisible part of that equation.
Q. And what happened in that instance?
A. They promised if they ever send out a survey again they will include staff, so that was a happy outcome.
Q. So you feel like your voice is being heard?
A. I think we can actually say something important. What’s meaningful to us can be expressed. That’s a pretty rare gift. No other organization I’ve ever worked in did I have the chance to sit down with the president of the organization and say, ‘Oh, by the way I was thinking the other day, why aren’t we doing this?’ That just doesn’t happen in corporate America or even non-profit America, so this to me is really a special culture.
Q. Is it hard getting weekly-paid staff to participate?
A. Trying to explain why it matters has proven difficult. People are like, ‘This already takes 35 to 40 hours of my life a week. Do I really want to give it more?’ I understand, not everybody is a committee person, not everybody wants to spend their energy that way. So I’ve been trying to explain that one of the advantages of serving on committee is that it is a networking opportunity. You get to see the University working on a different level. You get to interact with different departments and you have an in, a small in but an in.
I think we have a really nice diversity on our board and I think we can serve as a great resource, so I feel a little bit like we’re the undiscovered helpers. We’re a pre-made network of people. Right now I have someone who works in the Center for Community Partnerships and someone from Affirmative Action, so we’re very embedded in the resource centers which are an important part of staff life, but I don’t think all staff know they’re there for them.
The Penn Weekly-Paid Professional Staff Assembly (WPSA) is sponsoring a Holiday Bazaar in Houston Hall on December 17 from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, contact Vice Chair Candice Milbourne at 215-898-6993 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on WPSA, go to www.upenn.edu/wpsa.
Originally published on December 9, 2004