Advocates still fighting for better workplace environment - The Diamondback : Campus

Advocates still fighting for better workplace environment

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Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 12:13 am

Workplace reforms that began in October have helped university staff work and travel more safely, though some employees say little has been done to address the root of their lack of security on the campus.

Increased English-language classes and security patrolling, among other new policies, are tangible improvements, but they’re only a start in addressing the widespread reports of abuse, employees and student advocates said. The underlying problem, said Don Mitchell, a Residential Facilities electrician, is the complex hierarchy of supervision Mitchell said allows supervisors and managers to get away with illicit behavior.

“For decades, they’ve been able to belittle and humiliate and name-call and yell at and curse workers with complete impunity,” Mitchell said. “But when you try to get something done about it, they just go to their bosses … and then the so-called investigation is going to be one of their buddies or bosses saying ‘Did you do that?’ and they say ‘No! We would never do that.’”

Last year, after exposure campaigns by student and staff organizations, including Justice at Maryland and the Black Faculty and Staff Association, reports of violations began to surface — including overworking employees, racial and sexual harassment from supervisors, safety and security problems, a lack of promotional opportunities and a double standard between treatment of workers and of managers.

After the BFSA released a 56-page report outlining such concerns, the administration held its own investigation. Last summer, Facilities Management officials investigated safety and security concerns, especially those of housekeepers working the 4 a.m. to noon shift.

The numbers of actual incidents was “almost nonexistent,” said Carlo Colella, Facilities Management assistant vice president, but the university implemented the reforms anyway.

“We could’ve just dismissed it and said, ‘This is an exaggerated concern or not a well-founded risk,’ but instead we said, ‘Let’s take a look at our employees and details, how their work assignments are developed, where are they parking, where are their buildings, how do they get from point A to point B,” Colella said. “The response from the housekeepers has been very positive.”

Many workers worried they were unsafe walking from their parking spots to clock-in locations and job sites, said Sam Williamson, a member of JAM, which is a student advocacy group fighting alleged worker abuse on the campus. But as part of the university’s response to these allegations, Facilities Management implemented new policies in October, helping workers travel more safely in the early morning hours.

The university installed time clocks in eight more buildings, reassigned staff to different working zones or parking lots, increased security patrolling and worked to ensure staff members are either driven to their work sites from their clock-in locations or walk with others, according to an email Colella sent to his department.

The university also offered more English-language and computer classes to employees, and training programs in civility and respect became mandatory for Facilities Management staff members. A total of 840 employees have taken part in the training since November, Colella said.

It’s hard to measure the reforms’ impact, but they are an “excellent beginning,” Mitchell said.

And at a recent worker appreciation dinner, Williamson said, many employees expressed gratitude for student advocates’ work in pushing for the reforms.

“Things have improved,” said an early-morning housekeeper who wanted to remain anonymous to protect her job. “I had a lot of problems with [my supervisor] in the past — she was mean. She’s more friendly now … [Workers] can park closer; safety is better now; they’re taking solutions.”

However, the university’s new mandatory one-time, half-day civility trainings seem insufficient, Mitchell said.

“It’s hard to believe that a grown adult that’s spent 50 years being a sexual predator or bigot is going to be changed by a three-hour time,” Mitchell said.

Although the new reforms address safety, they do not touch on emotional issues between supervisors and workers, said Williamson. Some housekeepers prefer working in buildings without team leaders, even though they have to work more, because they aren’t harassed as much, the senior history major added.

Once, a housekeeper told Williamson she was raped in a bathroom she had been cleaning.

“Nobody could hear her because they were all on different floors,” Williamson said, adding the victim did not report the incident because she was afraid. “Workers had to come in and deal with that fear and never figure out who it was.”

And while many employees said their work is reasonable, some report strenuous working conditions, said Einas Ahmed, a JAM member and senior behavioral and community health major.

“A woman from Jamaica … complained about working so hard and so often that she didn’t feel like she was in pain until she went home and sat down to relax,” Ahmed said. “And then she felt the pain.”

The university has “no tolerance” for any such behavior, Colella said, noting issues that arise “are taken very, very seriously and investigated very thoroughly, and appropriate action is taken.”

But the university doesn’t truly understand working conditions, said a housekeeper taking her lunch break at 8 a.m. in Stamp Student Union. Workers need more opportunities to “improve their lives,” she added, including higher pay and promotion opportunities.

In the future, JAM hopes the university will implement a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination and hold “honest conversations” between management and workers. Several state legislators met with university President Wallace Loh, university officials and worker advocates in August and promised regular quarterly meetings. Though JAM wasn’t able to sit down with officials in the fall, according to Colella, members hope they can hold another meeting this spring.

Next semester, JAM will continue to hold speak-outs, meetings with administrators and worker appreciation events, hoping to expand its outreach and increase its pressure on the administration, said JAM member Renée Nicolas, who graduated from the university in the spring.

Workers’ treatment on the campus also reflects who the students are, Williamson said.

“If you’re going to be here and your tuition dollars are going to be supporting this university, what does it say if that money is supporting people being overworked and hurt on the job and disrespected, and we don’t do anything about it?” Williamson said. “I’m fighting for everybody: I’m fighting for myself, I’m fighting for people in my community.”

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