UNC housekeepers say changes not enough

Cleaning crews allege workplace harassment

tgrubb@newsobserver.comDecember 29, 2012 

  • What’s Next The Housekeeping Advisory Committee plans to conduct a second employee survey in March. Among other changes, the committee has initiated new supervisor development and employee training programs; translated department policies, memos and procedures into Burmese and Spanish; and drafted a multilingual employee handbook. The committee also plans to begin a pilot program by summer that will let employees review their supervisors’ performance.

— One manager has left and another has been transferred after recent allegations of harassment, but several UNC-Chapel Hill housekeepers want more done to prevent future incidents.

Fifteen dental school housekeepers and their student advocates recently asked the university to take specific steps to address “systematic problems” of harassment, disrespect and discrimination.

The housekeepers, many of them ethnic Karen and Burmese immigrants, asked for a voice in hiring supervisors, requested that UNC reinstate “hostile work environment” as a grievable offense and sought a six-month supervisor-review process.

A December 2011 report from PMR Consulting Group made similar recommendations after finding many workers “felt management did not promote a workplace free of discrimination, harassment and intimidation.”

Anna Wu, UNC’s assistant vice chancellor for facilities operations, planning and design, did not address the workers’ latest requests but said “it’s no secret that the department has had its share of problems and some serious issues.”

The university’s existing grievance policy does allow an employee to protest a hostile work environment based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion or other protected statuses, she said.

The consultant’s report led to the formation of a Housekeeping Advisory Committee, which met throughout 2012. Housekeeping Director Darius Dixon and other university leaders worked with the advisory committee to address any remaining issues, Wu said.

“Fostering the critical relationship between housekeeper and supervisor is of paramount importance,” she said. “Facilities Services is proud of our team members that keep this campus clean, healthy and safe. It is only right that they are given in return a work environment where they are treated with respect and dignity, and our good-faith efforts to ensure this happens are ongoing.”

Committee member and housekeeper George James said in November that the 11-member group had begun changing the department’s culture. “Just speaking for myself, when (university leaders) enter the room, I welcome their presence. I want to dialogue with them, and I want to interact with them,” he said.

Another committee member, Juanita Williams, was at the center of the workers’ allegations of harassment and verbal abuse based on their ethnicity that “created an environment of fear and intimidation,” according to a statement the workers attached to their grievances with the help of Student Action with Workers.

Williams, a zone manager, left the university Nov. 18 – four days after the workers filed their grievance – although university officials, citing personnel laws, would not confirm or deny why she left or whether she was fired. The university is looking for Williams’ replacement, UNC spokeswoman Kathy Bryant said.

James said the possibility that a supervisor might have acted inappropriately at this point is “just outrageous.”

“It seems like in one particular case, this has gone in one ear and out the other,” he said.

The grievances also accused crew leader Annette Reaves of harassment. She was moved to a similar housekeeping position elsewhere, Bryant said. The housekeepers say they are relieved but worry other housekeepers could be mistreated, said Laurel Ashton of Student Action with Workers.

The PRM report advised the university against moving employees to other work crews or zones to resolve “blatant employee, crew leader or supervisory misconduct.” The university ended the policy of inter-zone transfers in July 2011, except in cases of business need or personnel issues resolution. Bryant said Reaves’ position was moved “to better balance resources.”

Bryant said UNC officials were investigating complaints from several other housekeepers before the Dental School workers’ grievances were filed.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service