Swept Under the Rug

Matt Wan

“Devastated,” says Linda, a housekeeper in a University of Chicago dormitory. That’s how she felt when she heard the news. “I was devastated. I felt like we weren’t going to have a job anymore…We don’t know what to do. We’re just waiting here like sitting ducks.”

In a meeting with housekeepers on April 7, University of Chicago administrators announced their plans for major changes to the current housekeeping staff. The proposal calls for a consolidation of Housing personnel, the full-time housekeepers who serve the residence halls, and Facilities staff, who work in on-campus buildings. Additionally, the proposal suggests outsourcing housekeeping jobs. In an e-mail interview, University spokesman Steven Kloehn clarifies that the plan involved “the hiring of a contractor, a firm outside the University staff, which would be responsible for performing that work.” Currently, workers in the Housing staff receive their paychecks directly from the UofC, and Facilities workers are employed by a private sub-contractor. If all goes according to the University’s plan, a new, independent cleaning company will manage the housekeepers in all dorms, on-campus buildings and the surrounding grounds.

The purpose of the change, according to University officials, is to increase efficiency and quality of service by consolidating the Housing and Facilities services under one umbrella. Shortly after the housekeeping staff was notified of the change, a document of frequently-asked questions was sent to all Resident Heads, emphasizing the “functional expertise” of the Facilities staff. The consolidation, according to the document, would provide the “best leverage [of] the skills and resources we have at the University.” However, the department merger spells an uncertain future for campus workers and the possibility of lay-offs hangs over their head.

“I was kind of shocked,” says William, the head housekeeper in one of the undergraduate residence halls, “because just two years ago we had an hour taken from us.” In 2009, the University cut the Housing staff’s 40-hour work week to 35 hours, citing fiscal constraints. That year, in response to the University’s decision to slash Housing workers’ paychecks by eight percent, the student group Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL) organized months of activities in campus-wide protests.

Matt Wan

Although University administrators have not made any official decisions regarding Housing personnel, the first round of proposed changes has stirred up a storm of controversy on campus. Committed to raising awareness of the situation and drumming up support, students and workers have been organizing protests together. Dormitory residents have started and joined Facebook groups to demand that familiar faces stay in the dorm rooms–the group “Keep Housekeepers at the University of Chicago” had garnered 478 fans on Facebook by the time this issue went to print. On the student-made website keephousekeepers.com, launched only days after the announcement, the banner blares: “THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO HAS DECIDED TO FIRE ALL OF ITS HOUSEKEEPERS.”

But statements like this one, and other knee-jerk reactions to the April 7 announcement, obscure the complexities of the story. The University hasn’t said that it will fire anyone. It also hasn’t it said that it won’t. As Kloehn explains, “Facilities Services contracts out its cleaning responsibilities, and it is the University’s intention to contract out the cleaning in the buildings involved in this transition. That means it is highly likely many of the housekeepers now responsible for those buildings will no longer be University employees after the transition.”

However, the affected workers could still be employees, not of the University, but in the University. It remains a distinct possibility that the future sub-contractor could choose to keep all non-managerial workers who currently work for the University, as Aramark did when it took over dining services. Alternatively, the contractor could choose to bring in a whole new staff of temporary workers–and probably pay them barely above minimum wage. Or they could keep the old staff but reduce their pay and benefits. The University has yet to guarantee anything.

So what, exactly, will happen to workers? The University has said that it is too early to predict exactly how this change will affect jobs, wages, or benefits. Although the administration knows that it will start the transition on July 1 and complete the process by the end of August, the actual search for the new sub-contractor is only beginning: 23 companies are competing for the contract right now. “It would be premature to speculate about what will be involved in the contract, and what the possibilities are for individuals,” Kloehn says.

So the real problem does not lie in what the University has decided to do–truth be told, they haven’t decided on much. The real problem lies in the uncertainty. People don’t know what the future holds–and in this kind of economy, any sort of unpredictability can be a major source of anxiety.

The same week they made the announcements to housekeepers and residence heads, the University’s central administration declared the third week of Spring quarter “Employee Appreciation Week.” Students showed their love for the staff with cards, posters and thank-you notes. Now the Worker-Student Coalition (composed of a variety of student groups on campus) is holding what they call a “real Staff Appreciation Week:” a week of action to rally against possible job losses for the people they’ve come to see not just as house-cleaners, but as friends.

“My friend Jules told us he was getting fired,” reflects Paul Dueck, one of the founders of keephousekeepers.com and the corresponding Facebook group. “I was like, ‘Are your serious?!’…Jules was a really good friend to me.” Fear that his friend would be fired inspired Paul and two other residents of South Campus Residence Hall to create the website, which demands that the University preserve housekeeping jobs for the staff members, precisely because many students have developed relationships. The website lists many reasons to keep the same faces on campus next year: the current workers are experienced; bringing in strangers to clean the dorm might pose a risk for student safety; without the current workers, service quality would decrease. However, the main reason, Dueck claims, is that the housekeepers are friends. “They’re really part of our community,” says Dueck.

But other students oppose the changes as a matter of principle. Vitas Zukowski explained, “A lot of these people have been here for a long time and there are no other jobs on the South Side…[it is] blatantly unfair to people who…built their lives to support the university and its students.” Zukowski is a member of SOUL, the group that organized protested workers’ pay cuts in 2009. Right now, SOUL is leading the Worker-Student Coalition, applying many of the strategies that elicited responses from administrators in the past to the present week of action, including mass calls to President Zimmer’s office and a rally in front of the administration building last Thursday.

SOUL does not oppose the transition to a private sub-contractor outright, but they do demand that the University guarantee it will “retain housekeeping staff with the same wages and benefits” and “contractually stipulate that the new dining service provider retain all non-managerial dining service employees.”

Despite pressure from student groups, the University has so far declined to make this guarantee. But ambiguities may be inevitable at this point, as it is still very early on in the process and the University will not select a sub-contractor for several months. As Kloehn explains, “We recognize that a change like this can generate anxiety among those directly affected–anxiety that is amplified in this case by the fact that the University has announced its attentions early in the process, with many details yet to be determined.” The most crucial detail, of course, is the question on everyone’s mind: will people lose their jobs? “It is too early to speculate about that,” Kloehn says.

William accepts that response. “They’re being pretty fair because they really don’t have all the answers to the questions,” he says. “They just have to wait.” And as they wait, the housekeeping staff is left hanging.

Linda, however, is less confident in the University’s handling of the situation–she wants answers. “’We don’t know this, we don’t know that’,” she worries. “What’s that to us? They can’t tell why, and that’s the biggest problem, we can’t understand why. We get a question with a question, we never get answers.”

The University also declines to speculate on how the consolidation and outsourcing will affect specific individuals–staff and students alike. Whether that’s prudent caution or bureaucratic question-dodging is a matter of opinion. However, what’s certain is that no one has stopped the workers themselves from speculating on what the future will bring.

“I predict being unemployed, no job, all my dreams shattered, no retirement, no medical benefits,” says Linda. She worries about what will happen to her pension and her health insurance. She wonders if she’ll have to move in with relatives if she loses her job. But mostly, she’s thinking about her family. Because her daughter is unemployed, Linda was planning on supporting her granddaughter financially so that she would not have to go to public school. “I need my job,” she says, “because I want my granddaughter to go to private school and continue her piano lessons.”

The University is one of the biggest employers in the South Side, and there are few other job options for workers in the area. If they lay off many employees, then the reverberations will be felt in the communities surrounding Hyde Park.

But some, like William, remain hopeful. He’s confident that he will keep his job, for the simple reason that it is not in the University’s best interests to fire an experienced workforce. “I have a real strong belief that I will still keep my job,” he says. “The relationship with the students plays a big part. They’ll look at the big picture in that aspect, because it’s about you all, your safety and protection. I don’t think they would do something like that.”