Gehm has worked 12 years — seven years full-time — as a landscaper in the USD grounds department. At Thursday's meeting, she told of the low wages and even lower morale among those working in the Career Service Employee category at USD.
"I could go on and on with a variety of low-morale stories, such as one of our custodial employees who is currently homeless because he couldn't afford both his car repair and his rent," she told the audience of about 30 people.
The Vermillion meeting is part of a series of forums being held across the state. The Regents, hosted by legislators, provide information about the state's public higher education system. In turn, the public can ask questions and provide input for the Regents and Legislature.
Gehm used Thursday's opportunity to address the Regents, USD President Jim Abbott, District 17 lawmakers and members of the general public.
"Some of us have worked there (in the same department) for 20 years and others as few as three years. Some of us have degrees and others don't. Some of us have a lot of prior experience and skills which are valuable to USD," she said.
"All of us make the same salary. That amount is $21,275 per year. It is the mid-range of the salary. Ironically, we can't pass the mid-range and there is very little opportunity for promotion. I am aware that custodial staff make even less."
Gehm said she gives her best effort at her job.
"I still don't make enough to pay all my bills, and my only chance for a raise is a very limited promotion. I guess we call this realization — the beginnings of low morale," she said. "It seems that a person working a devoted 40 hours per week should make a living wage … one that allows them both groceries and utilities."
A number of USD employees, particularly in her department, hold second jobs to make ends meet, Gehm said.
She noted the little difference between starting and top pay for her job classification.
"The other reality I'm facing is the pay of our part-time (mostly 16-, 17- and 18-year-old) employees," she said. "First year on, their hourly pay inches close to the amount I make per hour. There is something terribly lopsided here. Now, I understand that I get benefits, but let's be real … they probably have benefits … their parents'."
Gehm called for reforms in the state pay policy.
"The State needs to begin to show their lower echelon employees a certain amount of respect by creating a living wage that is fair to all," she said. "The once-per-year longevity bonus doesn't come close to the reality of an increase in a wage due to the right attitude along with a job well done on a regular basis."
Gehm pointed to examples of low morale among employees.
"In mid-May, my landscaping supervisor at USD left the job at age 52 after having worked there almost 30 years. He had finally hit the remarkable $30,000 salary. He was earning a simple living wage. He is THE person who made the U. the beautiful and unique place that it is today … practically a park. People love walking our campus," she said.
"I'm aware that his leaving was partly due to his frustration at the realities he and his employees were facing. He is not alone in his frustration as many are going elsewhere. In some cases, it's those with the most personality, knowledge and experience."
The Legislature needs to take on the problem, Gehm said.
"The rest would require our state representatives to plan to make changes in the current payroll policies to ones that could prevent this stagnant existence that countless employees are experiencing and (would) actually create incentive," she said.
In response to Gehm's presentation, Regents Chairman Harvey Jewett said USD officials are not to blame for any salary shortfalls.
"Your compensation is set at the state level, not at this campus," Jewett told her. "If your frustration is at the administration of this university, you're frustrated with the wrong people."
Higher-education employees need to have their concerns heard by state officials and the Legislature in Pierre, Jewett said.
"There are some things the Board of Regents can do, and some things we can't," he said. "We are not the source of your solution."
However, Jewett said the Regents do support competitive wages for the state's higher-education employees.
Abbott didn't respond directly during the Regents meeting to Gehm's presentation. However, the District 17 lawmakers — Sen. Ben "B.J." Nesselhuf (D-Vermillion) and Reps. Jamie Boomgarden (R-Chancellor) and Eldon Nygaard (D-Vermillion) — did show concerns during the evening.
Nygaard spoke during the meeting, directly addressing Gehm. He noted a personal connection, as their children had played together, and he had taught with Gehm's former husband.
Nygaard said he was disturbed to hear that some USD employees resorted to drastic steps because of their financial situation.
"It's a despicable situation when janitors can't come to work (because of car repairs) and are homeless," he said.
After the meeting, Nesselhuf — who attends USD — noted that low pay remains a problem for much of South Dakota's higher-education employees.
"This is a problem not just for this institution (USD) but across the state. We try to give a 3-percent raise each year to USD and other state employees," he said. "This isn't limited to our universities. Low wages are a problem for all of South Dakota, period."
Gehm showed courage speaking out on what could be an unpopular topic, Nesselhuf said.
"The Legislature needs to be reminded of this," he said.
Boomgarden didn't have further official comment, but he spent time after the meeting speaking to Gehm about her concerns.
Gehm said she hopes speaking out makes a difference.
"I hope (the District 17 lawmakers) take this for consideration to the Legislature next year," she said. "We are losing a lot of good people."
Thursday's Regents town hall meeting covered a wide variety of topics, including the Regents' attendance earlier that day with U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) at a National Science Foundation (NSF) meeting in the Black Hills. The meeting with the senator included a focus on the conversion of the former Homestake Gold Mine into a deep-underground laboratory.
At the Vermillion meeting, Jewett and Regents Executive Director Tad Perry talked about efforts to secure enough engineers for the laboratory and other high-tech projects in the state. They noted the early success of Gov. Mike Rounds' "Dakota Roots" program in luring back 100 former South Dakotans — including engineers — who want to return to their home state.
"I know — one of those 100 works for me," said Jared Higman, president of the Masaba Mining Equipment company of Vermillion, from the audience.
Afterwards, Higman said he was glad to see the return of engineers to the state. However, he said he would also like to see the state graduate enough of its own engineers who will remain in South Dakota after graduation.
Higman said he has spoken with Rounds about getting more technical support and science-oriented employees for companies such as his, which has undergone expansion.
Those engineers, in turn, further invest in the state, Higman said.
"They become presidents, CEOs and entrepreneurs. They drive the economy of the state," he said.
As for himself, Higman said he has never regretted moving his company to South Dakota.
"I like the whole atmosphere here," he said. "There is such a 'can-do' attitude in this state. I wish I had made the move years earlier."