Swept Under the Carpet?: UT Custodians Allege Harassment, Retaliatory Transfers, and More

When Melissa Murray landed a job in the University of Tennessee's Building Services department five years ago, she thought she had lucked out. Sure, she was cleaning buildings, mostly during second shift at night, but it was a job at UT, which meant decent pay and good benefits.

Now, Murray says, she can't even stand the thought of going in.

"I'm a happy person. And I'm always smiling. I get along with everyone," the bubbly 42-year-old blonde says. "But there's a lot of negativity down there. Everything's negative … You can feel it in the air."

By "down there," Murray is referring to the division of Building Services that cleans the athletics facilities, a division Murray says she was transferred to last summer in retaliation for complaining when a foreman yelled at her. And while the problems in athletics are the worst, Murray says, they're symptomatic of larger issues in Building Services as a whole—widespread issues that have been exacerbated since the appointment of Gordon Nelson as assistant director of the department last spring.

From January 2012 until last week, 65 employees have left their positions in Building Services. Five of those employees retired, and two died (one on the job), which means a total of 58 employees have been fired or have resigned over the past 16 months. That's close to a 50 percent turnover rate, according to United Campus Workers, the union that represents some 1,400 UT employees (albeit without collective bargaining power).

The majority of turnover is in athletics, according to several employees interviewed for this story.

"It's like the death knell," says Gary "Diamond" Thomas, 58. "If they transfer you down there, it's because they want you to quit."

Thomas was transferred to athletics last November. He says his transfer was also retaliatory, after he ran for a position as an employee representative of UCW against the wishes of his supervisor.

"I was working in Dougherty Engineering, and it was under construction, but I never got complaints," Thomas says. After his transfer, he says he got the first negative evaluation in his two years on campus. Murray says the same thing happened to her.

"The unwritten policy is to be rude and disrespectful and to use every employee up until they're longer of use," adds Seth Cannon. Cannon, 28, has always worked at athletics, and he loved his old position cleaning the aquatic center, where, he says, he was beloved by coaches and members of the swim team for his work—so much so that he has a card framed with signatures thanking him for his work when he was transferred to a different assignment.

Now, Cannon says, he can get written up for even speaking to a student.

"It's an impossible situation, because a lot of time they lose something and come up to you and ask if you've seen their iPod or whatever, but if you get caught talking to them, then you're in trouble," Cannon says.

Cannon also says his new assignment included more work than he could handle, which caused his rare neurological disorder, stiff-person syndrome, to flare up. Now walking with a cane and suffering from frequent spasms, Cannon says he's on the verge of being fired, simply for taking his sick days in accordance with UT policy, despite presenting doctor's notes documenting his condition.

"They just do not care," Cannon says. He says a colleague of his with incurable cancer has been written up for coming to work late after medical appointments and is also on his final warning before getting fired. "He's not allowed to miss one day, or even take family medical leave time."

The problems at Building Services have become so extreme that UCW is holding an open forum this Wednesday to discuss what can and should be done, since UT is ostensibly taking no action after multiple complaints. Murray says she's notified department heads of poor treatment and filed complaints with both Human Resources and the Office of Equity and Diversity with no result.

"There are so many people afraid to speak up," Murray says. "They keep saying, ‘We'll check into it,' but nothing's happened. I just don't care anymore if I get fired."

For its part, UT says it has taken steps to address the concerns. UT spokesperson Karen Simsen says, "We take very seriously all of the claims that have been alleged by the custodial employees of Facilities Services. All three employee shifts have met with senior management to share their concerns so that we can gather more information and address them.

"Based on concerns, we began a voluntary transfer process for custodial employees who want to transfer to other work sites. We do, however, need the flexibility to move workers to other buildings throughout their workweek to carry out the custodial functions across campus."

But employees say UT's actions to date have been frustrating. Murray says she has repeatedly asked to be transferred back to cleaning academic buildings. At one point, she says she thought the transfer had gone through, only to be presented with a letter from Nelson himself saying she was better off where she was.

Josh Smyser, another campus custodian, says the early March meetings with staff had an atmosphere of intimidation; all the supervisors being criticized were present.

"I think if supervisors are accused of misconduct, they should not be at a meeting where people are trying to address it," Smyser says.

And Benny Williams, who's worked in Building Services for three years, says he got his first-ever negative evaluation last week after speaking up in one meeting.

"My evaluation last week says I'm rude to management. And I was not rude, I just asked a question. I might have spoken a little loudly, but we were in a big room, and you needed to do that to be heard," Williams says. Because of the negative evaluation, he's no longer eligible for a raise this year.

UT says some of the problems are due to "transitioning its custodial service from a partially in-house and contracted service to entirely in-house," which has created 140 new full-time jobs.

But Smyser warns that if the problems under Nelson's management aren't fixed soon, the university will have even more trouble keeping those jobs filled.

"They're losing people because the supervisors are acting how they're acting," Smyser says. "They're shooting themselves in the foot if they don't address the real issues of supervisor misconduct."