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Major public universities count among employers with many workers enrolled in Medicaid and SNAP

A significant number of working adults enrolled in public safety net programs for low-income people work at public university systems in some states, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

The report, drawn up in response to a request from Senator Bernie Sanders, examined data on working adults in two programs: Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for low-income people, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, sometimes called food stamps. The report focused on where those working adults are employed and what they do.

The GAO polled state agencies that administer Medicaid and SNAP in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It found agencies in 11 states that generated detailed and reliable employer data for the report. The report lists the 25 largest employers of working adults who are enrolled in Medicaid or SNAP in several of the states.

Those lists tilted heavily to private, for-profit employers. But nonprofit employers also show up, as do public sector employers like governments and public university systems.

No one employer dominated a state’s population of working adult Medicaid or SNAP enrollees. The percentage of recipients working for any employer was no more than 4 percent in any state. The report cautioned that data for states aren’t generalizable, meaning they can’t be applied nationally, and that they only show a snapshot of employers of record at one moment in time.

The GAO found Indiana University employed the third-most working adult Medicaid enrollees in February 2020 of any employer in that state — 1,569 people, or about 1 percent of Indiana’s nondisabled, nonelderly working adult Medicaid enrollment. Indiana University was also listed as employing the 21st-most SNAP recipients in February, 254 people, or 0.4 percent of the state’s adult SNAP recipients who were working for an employer.

“Indiana University does not track information on employees who may be receiving these federal benefits,” a spokesperson for the university, Chuck Carney, said in a statement. “However, we are very cognizant of these issues and are diligently taking steps to improve the overall wages of our lowest-paid workers through a gradual plan to raise all employees to a minimum wage of $15 an hour as approved by the IU trustees in 2017. While that effort has been hampered by salary freezes as part of pandemic budget measures, it will resume as soon as fiscal circumstances allow. We have worked to ensure that our lower wage-earners continue to pay as small a percentage for their health insurance as is possible.”

Joining Indiana University on the list for the Hoosier State was Purdue University. The GAO found Purdue had the 24th-most employees who were working adult Medicaid enrollees in Indiana of any employer in February — 454 people, or 0.3 percent of the state’s nondisabled, nonelderly working adults in the program. Purdue didn’t appear on the list of the state’s largest employers of workers receiving SNAP benefits.

“We are in the top 10 for employment in the state, so on raw numbers alone we will show up in a report like this, especially given the state’s low cost of living and expansive Medicaid eligibility,” said a spokesperson for Purdue, Tim Doty. “We regularly compare pay levels to the market and adjust levels accordingly. All full-time employees are covered on our health care plans.”

The University of Maine system was the sixth-largest employer of working adult Medicaid enrollees in February, with 300 employees, or 1 percent of that state’s nondisabled, nonelderly working adult Medicaid enrollment. The system was the 11th-largest employer of workers receiving SNAP benefits, with an estimated 107 such employees, or half a percentage point of the state’s total adult SNAP recipients who were working for an employer.

The GAO report also named the University of Rhode Island as among its state’s top 25 employers of working adults enrolled in Medicaid. That university employed an estimated 166 nondisabled, nonelderly adult Medicaid enrollees, 0.4 percent of such working adult Medicaid enrollees in the state.

If the University of Maine system were a private employer, it would be one of the largest in the state, according to a spokesman, Dan Demeritt.

“With 4,635 employees, the University of Maine System is one of the largest employers in our rural, mostly small business state,” Demeritt said in an email. “Like the state’s two major health systems, we are among large employers with a mix of employees supporting the enterprise at different salary ranges.”

Almost a third of the Maine system’s employees, 29.5 percent, are hourly paid staff, according to data the system provided. Their pay averages out to a salary of $33,303, and they are most likely to be the ones counted in the GAO report for being enrolled in the federal programs, Demeritt said.

Of those hourly employees in the Maine system, 44.8 percent have a high school degree or less. Hourly employees average 11.9 years of service. That’s more than salaried workers at 9.8 years but less than faculty members at 13.2 years and administrators at 14.7 years.

The Maine system does not have a living wage policy, Demeritt said.

“We do live in a state, however, where the minimum wage will rise to $12.15 an hour in January compared to a federal minimum wage of $7.25,” he said. “Twenty-one states still use $7.25 as their [minimum] wage, and five of those states do not even have a state [minimum] wage.”

Demeritt also wondered how many students who work for the university might have been picked up in the federal data. The university system produces about 16,000 W-2s annually, including student employees.

Various faculty members at University of Maine institutions said they weren’t aware of the information in the GAO report.

“This is not something that faculty is aware of,” William Nichols, president of the Executive Committee of the University of Maine’s Faculty Senate, said in an email. “Perhaps now that you shared this information we will become more aware of the situation.”

A University of Rhode Island spokesman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A statement from Sanders did not mention the universities on the lists.

“At a time when huge corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s are making billions in profits and giving their CEOs tens of millions of dollars a year, they’re relying on corporate welfare from the federal government by paying their workers starvation wages. That is morally obscene. U.S. taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize some of the largest and most profitable corporations in America. It is time for the owners of Walmart, McDonald’s and other large corporations to get off of welfare and pay their workers a living wage,” it said. “No one in this country should live in poverty. No one should go hungry. No one should be unable to get the medical care they need. It is long past time to increase the federal minimum wage from a starvation wage of $7.25 an hour to $15, and guarantee health care to all Americans as a human right.”

Attention on the new GAO report largely focused on private employers, particularly those with a national presence. Walmart, for example, was among the four largest employers of Medicaid and SNAP recipients in every state for which the GAO published individual estimates. Amazon, McDonald’s, Burger King, Dollar Tree, Dollar General and FedEx also appeared frequently on state lists.

Some employers have suggested the data could be taken out of context or be misleading. Employers can hire people who were already enrolled in Medicaid or SNAP, for example, bringing them into the workforce. Some have also said they support raising the minimum wage.

Over all, about 12 million wage-earning adults between the ages of 19 and 64 are enrolled in Medicaid, according to the GAO. About nine million wage-earning adults receive benefits from SNAP. In 2018, roughly half of those wage-earning enrollees worked full-time hours — at least 35 hours per week — on an annual basis.

Nine in 10 wage-earning adults participating in the two safety net programs worked in the private sector. They were often employed by restaurants, department stores and grocery stores.

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