Seeking Fair Treatment: The University System Contemplates the Elimination of State Protections for Low-Wage Employees

BY: SARAH BUFKIN

After four months searching for a stable job, Amanda Hulon found a position with the UNC housekeeping department. But after only four shifts cleaning UNC buildings, her supervisor made her an offer—have sex with me, and things will go a lot easier for you here at work. Say anything, and I’ll make your life hell. Dependent on her salary, Hulon suffered through weeks of sexual harassment and abuse, filing grievances with the Facilities Department that brought no relief. Fed up, she filed a law suit against her supervisor and the University in August 2011.

But Hulon is not alone. A recent report compiled by the PRM Consulting firm on UNC-Chapel Hill’s housekeeping department found that employees “had witnesses or were the target of what they felt were inappropriate behaviors, including being touched, pushed, fondled, and spoke to in a sexually explicit manner.”

The report caps off a year rampant with controversy for the university facilities department. In September, UNC fired former director of housekeeping Bill Burston after employees filed numerous complaints against him for sexual harassment. Only three months later, assistant director Tanya Sell was forced out as well, following a series of complaints and widespread protest from the housekeepers.

But in Hulon’s case—as in many others—the proper University channels could not address the problems its housekeepers struggle with day in and day out.
And if a proposed initiative is pushed through the NC General Assembly this spring, the University of North Carolina system will eliminate the last defense of state oversight by removing around 15,400 employees from the protections of the State Personnel Act.

“From wages to benefits to health care to the grievance process [to] raises—basically everything that really decides the conditions for university employees would be under the authority of the Board of Governors,” junior and Student Action with Workers co-chair Zaina Alsous said.

A Grab for Greater System-wide Flexibility and Efficiency
The measure, which state Sen. Richard Stevens (R-Raleigh) first introduced last April in Senate Bill 575, would streamline the University’s personnel systems by putting the current SPA employees, who include housekeepers, facilities staff, police officers and office support, under the same employee system as professors, research assistants, upper-level management, and the senior academic officials.

“The University is aggressively pursuing and made clear that they want to see it passed in this legislature,” said Ardis Watkins, the director for legislative affairs at SEANC. On the University System’s 2012-2013 legislative agenda, the measure is one of five initiatives listed under ‘Personnel Efficiencies.’

Although SB 575, which included the measures, has expired and can no longer be considered in this legislative session, Sen. Stevens told Campus BluePrint that he has not ruled out introducing the proposal yet again by including it in this year’s budget. Stevens acted as one of the two original sponsors of SB 575 and currently chairs the Appropriations Committee, which gives him quite a bit of power.

Stevens holds, as does the Office of UNC System President Tom Ross, that the removal of university system employees from the SPA gives the universities more flexibility in dealing with their employees without taking away employee protections.

In order to guarantee that employees won’t lose rights without state supervision, the Board of Governors discussed in February a set of guiding principles that would inform its new personnel system, if allowed by the state.

“I have offered to the employees group and to President Ross that if it would help clarify things, I’ll put those [guiding principles] in the statute saying that in adopting personnel rules the University shall follow the following principles,” Stevens said. “They’re good solid sound personnel procedures that also provide protections for employees…If the University is not compliant with the statute, then they’re not in compliance with the law.”

But the guiding principles are little more than vague promises for the members of the Coalition for Workplace Democracy—a statewide coalition of student groups, labor unions, and concerned associations such as the North Carolina Conference of the American Association of University Professors mobilizing against the removal of the SPA protections.

They aren’t binding, Alsous says. And even if they are written into the statute, the current draft of the principles offers little more than assurances without offering any concrete details or providing for an enforcement mechanism outside of the Board of Governors, according to Nick Wood, a labor organizer with the national coalition, Jobs with Justice.

For SEANC, the most important flaw in the guiding principles is the University system’s refusal to include a property-rights guarantee, which would ensure that none of the employees would become at-will or able to be fired for any reason at any time. As the principles currently stand, employees would be phased into at-will positions once the new personnel system was up and running.

“Upon implementation of the unified system, employees previously identified as ‘SPA’ will not be required to become ‘at will’ in their current jobs,” the document on the University system website states. “Employees may choose to apply for and accept transfers or promotions to ‘at will’ positions.”

According to Chelsea Philips, a SEANC organizer working in western North Carolina, SEANC lobbyists have met with the Board of Governors several times about adding a provision preventing at-will employment, yet have consistently been told no. If they aren’t planning on turning employees into at-will employees, Philips asked, then why won’t they agree to put that in the law?

Projected and Potential Consequences of Removing SPA Protections
Without the threat of state oversight or any binding legal contract, employees could find themselves at the whim of a future, more conservative Board of Governors.

“They’re going to make all these promises, but after there are no legal conditions,” Alsous said. “These words and these promises can change at any time, and no one will know the difference. And on top of that, the Board of Governors can change at any time. It already isn’t exactly a pro-worker body, but if you can imagine it even more conservative—which is totally possible in a changing political landscape—the state of workers would be completely up in the air.”

Without the SPA provisions, Watkins says, university employees  essentially become at-will employees, which means that they can be fired at any time without a justifiable cause. Senior Laurel Ashton, who serves as the second co-chair of SAW and who completed an honors thesis on the state of housekeepers’ rights at UNC, thinks the University system won’t make any dramatic changes to the housekeepers’ personnel system—at least not at first.

“What’s important about [this SPA measure] is that it can happen,” Ashton said. “When they need to make the changes, that’s when they’ll do it.”

But Ashton does warn that removing the housekeepers and other low-income employees from the SPA will have immediate consequences on both morale and their ability to ask for help.
“The fear is already so heightened,” Ashton said. “It’s so engrained in the workers’ everyday experiences on the job, and they’re not at-will employees. There is a process that has to be taken to eventually terminate an employee, and that has been the reason that so many housekeeper organizers are still around because they have these protections. And if you’re at-will, then you don’t. You can be fired for any reason.”

Removing the SPA protections would hold widespread implications, from health-care benefits to the guaranteed grievance process to job security to a set wages.

“Under the State Personnel Act, wages are codified and organized so if you work for a certain amount of time, you get x raise,” Alsous said. “But if this only were under the auspice of the Board of Governors, wages could totally fluctuate dependent on personal favoritism or there could no raises. There is no oversight. There is no one to hold the University accountable.”

Case Study: A Grievance Process Gone Wrong
In 1998, the Board of Governors pushed a similar measure to SB 575 and removed hospital employees statewide from the SPA by creating UNC Healthcare as a separate entity, complete with its own personnel system. University officials have cited the success of UNC Healthcare in making their bid to remove the rest of its employees from SPA, but those who work with hospital employees in the Chapel Hill area say there are serious reasons for concern.

“The reason things have been fairly quiet is because it is impossible to file grievances,” said Clay Turner, an attorney at the firm, McSurley and Turner, which specializes in civil rights litigation in the Chapel Hill area.

Although both the Healthcare system and the SPA provide grievance processes for their workers, the ease of access, quality of resources, and structure of the two systems differ widely—and offer employees widely different chances for relief.

In the case of the SPA, the grievance form is several pages long and provides a list of various grievances that employees can check, thereby providing the workers with a much better chance of fully explaining their claim. The SPA website includes links to multi-paged documents detailing all of an employee’s rights, the ins and outs of the grievance process, and guidelines for how to navigate all of the technical jargon.

In contrast, the UNC Healthcare system hands out a grievance form that requires the employee to write in his or her answers to three questions: ‘Nature of grievance,’ ‘Brief statement of facts,’ and ‘Relief.’ The procedure itself is discussed in only a few pages. None of these documents are provided on a website but can only be obtained by going in to ask management.
“Someone making $20,000 a year without even a high school education is not going to be able to navigate [this grievance process,]” Turner said.

Turner referenced one Latino housekeeper he had spoken with who had gone to management to file a grievance for workplace discrimination. He brought 12 eyewitnesses along with him, and yet Human Resources told him that he had no basis for a claim and was refused the chance to even fill out a grievance form.

The problems don’t end, however, once a Healthcare employee is fortunate enough to receive a grievance form. Under the SPA system, the employees must go through two stages of hearings internally before they are able to take their claim to a court—where their claim is overheard by a neutral, administratively-experienced judge, where they have due process rights, where attorneys can cross examine witnesses and present testimony.

In the Healthcare system, on the other hand, that evidentiary hearing on the claim takes place internally before the Board of Governors. In that hearing environment, says Turners, workers are often times denied due process rights, such as cross examination, the presentation of witnesses, and an unbiased, impartial adjudicator. By the time the grievance makes it out of the UNC Healthcare System at the final appeal, an outside body like the Superior Court can only review the record compiled in the skewed hearing. At that time, the employee cannot introduce any new evidence to back up his or her claim.

“[Employees have] a hugely better winning percentage in front of a judge,” Turner said.

Without the SPA protections, university employees won’t see a judge until the final stage, at which point most of their fate has already been decided by “a kangaroo court,” according to Turner.

Bolstering Public Awareness
But even though such a move could have potentially huge consequences for the housekeeping staff, the University has not made much of an effort to publicize it among employees. Odessa Davis, who has worked as a housekeeper at UNC for close to 20 years, has found it difficult to get information out of the university.

“They don’t tell us,” Davis said. “We have to find out in bits and pieces. But we know better. They tell us that it’s benefiting because you’ll get more out of this and more out of that. But we already know [better].”

SEANC’s more than 55,000 public employees voted to make opposition to the SPA repeal the union’s third highest priority for this legislative session. And much of the UNC housekeeping staff is also aware of the measure and has expressed their opposition. The newly-constituted Employee Forum recently approved a resolution criticizing the switch to a single personnel system.

Davis is one of the housekeepers taking the lead in raising awareness on campus about this issue.

“If we get that bill, we won’t have no say-so,” Davis said. “They can just fire us just like that. With no excuse. So I think it’s very important that they know as much as they can about that bill.”

Mobilizing against the measure certainly presents an uphill battle. The low-income university employees have traditionally featured as a marginalized and easily trampled group in the power schemata of North Carolina politics, and the Board of Governors is pushing for Sen. Stevens to introduce this initiative again this session.

“The Board of Governors has so much power over those positions, and we rarely talk about them,” Ashton said. “That’s just not even a part of our rhetoric before this. We need to be looking at the Board of Governors. It’s not about [particular] people, it’s about the social position that they’re holding and that they are under the thumb of the Board of Governors.”

The Struggle for Labor Rights in Context
But this latest attempt to void the SPA protections for university system employees follows in a long tradition of conflict between organized labor and the public institutions.
“UNC has a long history of using its influence in the state house to negatively affect university workers,” Ashton said. “When [the State Personnel Act] was first being revised, UNC insured that its lowest wage workers would not even be considered SPA. It’s not necessarily surprising because this is a history that we are just kind of continuing, but it’s sad.”

Labor has always found it difficult to organize in the state of North Carolina; the state legislature eliminated collective bargaining rights back in 1959.

“We have the lowest unionization rate in the country [at] 2.9 percent,” Ashton said. “I don’t know when North Carolina hasn’t been at the very bottom. We like to think of ourselves [as the Progressive South], but when it comes to labor, it’s just not the case.”

Looking back over his history working to unionize and represent public-sector workers, Watkins confirms Ashton’s assessment of the topography.

“North Carolina is one of the most hostile states to workers in terms of worker rights,” Watkins said. “We’re trying as an organization to ensure that public workers’ rights are maintained to the best extent that they can.”

In light of all of the recent labor skirmishes in states like Wisconsin and California, Ashton finds it noteworthy that the University system could take away what few tools workers have to stand up for their own rights.

“There’s already so little power in labor in North Carolina,” Ashton said. “Who thinks it’s so necessary to take this last push when other states are rioting because they are taking away the rights that we haven’t had in 50 years? Why are they doing this now?”

Only the Latest Incident for the Housekeepers
This SPA initiative is just the icing on the cake for the UNC housekeepers, who already face a gamut of problems, ranging from harsh chemicals to unfair management to abuse to perceived job insecurity. To work as a one of the least visible and most marginalized positions on a college campus often times makes employees much less likely to feel as if they can stand up for themselves.

The PRM report noted on multiple occasions that the consultants feared many of the housekeepers, particularly those among the non-English speaking population, were not answering their questions honestly out of a fear of retaliation.

“During the interview process, several employees, particularly the Burmese employees, made it clear that they were not going to say anything bad about management, for fear of losing their jobs,” the report concluded.

Yet even with the silencing of some housekeepers, the report paints a troubling picture of what it is like to work as a housekeeper on campus.

As many as 33 percent of the current staff doesn’t agree that “Housekeeping management cares about and is interested in the welfare of its employees.” Furthermore, 34 percent opposed the statement, “I believe Housekeeping management promotes an environment free from harassment, discrimination and intimidation.”

The list of perceived unfairness and mistreatment goes on and on.

“The ombudsmen have heard all of this,” Alsous said. “Chancellor Thorpe has heard all of this….When Human Resources is receiving grievances—grievance upon grievance upon grievance that this is going on—[and yet nothing happens,] you really start to question who is supposed to be taking responsibility here.”

Since PRM Consulting released its report to the University and to the public last October, Chancellor Thorpe promised to develop and implement “an action plan that incorporates many of PRM’s ideas.” But since September, the housekeepers have seen only a few superficial changes go into effect, according to Davis.

“The only thing that I’ve seen change is that they got rid of some of the bad managers,” Davis said, “but we’ve still got some. And that’s about it.”

For Ashton, the problems plaguing the housekeeping department go much deeper than just the individual managers.

“One woman [I spoke with] had a really interesting perspective on it: we still haven’t cut off the head of the snake,” Ashton said. “The PRM report does a lot of things, but you can tell that they aren’t taking it where they need to take it. And I think there’s a reason. They were hired by the university. They’re not going to implicate the administration in the problems of the housekeeping department…Managers are the pawns of those above them.”

And the power dynamic between the housekeeping staff and the University administration makes the possibility of real change all the more elusive.

“Let’s just call it the elephant in the room,” Alsous said. “The majority of housekeepers are minority women. It’s just a historically-marginalize and silenced community…On top of that, they are minority women from impoverished communities who are not paid a living wage.”

Taking Steps Forward
Both SAW members agree on a couple of actionable steps that the University should be taking to better conditions for its workers—namely, providing adequate translation services for non-English speakers and eliminating a stifling team-cleaning policy.

The PRM report highlighted the clear need for more translators within the housekeeping department, yet Ashton has found little to no action has been taken thus far.
“Last month at least, we went with a Spanish-speaking housekeeper to Human Resources to translate for her, because they didn’t have a Spanish-speaking translator,” Ashton said. “I mean, Spanish. That’s so much easier that Burmese, Karen. You don’t have [a Spanish] translator yet? When did this report come out? Months and months ago? Why did it need to have a report to happen? The PRM report says that 40 percent of housekeeping is non-English speaking, and you don’t have translators in Human Resources. That is beyond me.”

The housekeepers also complain about the University’s gradual transition away from a zone-cleaning policy, in which each employee is given the liberty to clean a set space regularly, to a restrictive, team-cleaning policy known as OS1.

Housekeeper James Holman, who serves as the Grievance Support Person on both the Employee Forum and within SEANC’s 25th District, wrote a statement on behalf of the housekeepers criticizing the OS1 policy.

“[The team-cleaning process] reduces the UNC housekeeping employee to a less-than-respected cipher in the system, rather than supporting them as intelligent, hard-working and conscientious employees,” Holman wrote. “This team cleaning system specifies the exact quantities of supplies and the exact techniques that should be used to do each individual task during a work day—and the exact number of minutes it should take to do each task.  Worker productivity is evaluated based on adherence to the time and supply restrictions that this system specifies.”

Ashton puts it in blunter terms.

“OS1 means that you are given a task,” she said. “So you might clean toilets every day for two weeks, and that’s all you do is clean toilets. And you have two minutes to clean every single toilet and you have a packet of soap this big, and you can only use one packet per toilet…It’s very dehumanizing, the whole process….Who just wants to be cleaning toilets from building to building the entire day?”

Davis also criticizes the rigidity of the new cleaning model, saying that the University forces them to use certain chemicals on certain tasks, even if the employee has a harsh reaction to them. As asthmatic, she struggles with the cleaning fluid used on kitchen equipment and was promised a mask, but none has yet been forthcoming.

For Holman, the housekeepers aren’t asking for much—simply safe and respectful conditions in which to do their jobs.

“There are approximately 400 housekeeping employees who have the expectation of being treated respectfully and fairly, of working in an environment free from threats, intimidation and harassment, and of being enabled to do their best job for the University,” Holman wrote.

If the NC General Assembly passes this measure to remove the housekeepers and other low-wage employees from the State Personnel Act and all of its safeguards, achieving Holman’s goals will become much more difficult.

For Alsous, this is the issue that will define her college career.

“Just the fact that their jobs and their livelihoods are at risk for asking for basic treatment and basic conditions,” she said, “it just blows you away…This culture of disrespect, this culture of marginalization is so pervasive.

“For me, the reason why I got involved is not even the unfairness of wages and the unfairness of business practices. To me, it was as a student, this is the narrative that is being perpetuated about me. Workers are being told that I want this for them. And that’s something that I refuse to accept.”

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