UT Holds Meetings to Address Custodians' Accusations, But They Don't Seem to Calm Nerves

Last Thursday, University of Tennessee Associate Vice Chancellor Dave Irvin held several meetings with Building Services employees. Irvin is the head of the entire Facilities Services department, which is in charge of Building Services, which provides custodial services for most of the UT campus, as well as landscaping and maintenance services.

The meetings were mandatory for all custodial employees, and were held during each shift. There were separate meetings for employees who clean the athletic facilities and employees who clean the academic facilities, but what Irvin told them, in a prepared statement that lasted about 50 minutes long, was the same: Yes, we have made a few mistakes, and yes, we have a few employees who have acted inappropriately, but otherwise almost all the allegations of the problematic workplace culture in Building Services (as documented in Metro Pulse two weeks ago) are completely false.

Irvin denied the practice of retaliatory transfers or scheduling. He denied there was a gag order preventing custodial employees from talking to "customers" (as he continually referred to other UT employees and students in buildings being cleaned), even as he admitted some people had been written up for talking to faculty members.

He denied that any employees, specifically union representatives, had been intentionally isolated, assigned to buildings alone and far away from other employees. He denied that people had been written up for taking sick leave, although he said that at least two employees eligible for the Family Medical Leave Act had been written up because, when they called in sick, they didn't specifically request that they wanted to use FMLA time. And he denied two allegations of nepotistic hiring.

Bob Caudill, the director of facilities operations and second-in-command behind Irvin over Building Services, would not let this reporter into the 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. meetings for second-shift employees last Thursday. However, Melissa Murray, a custodian in athletics, recorded the meetings for both the athletics and academics staff and provided us with the video for the first meeting and audio for the first and second meetings. We also talked to several people who were present at one or the other of the meetings.

According to several employees who attended the second meeting, Irvin lost his temper near the end, after longtime employee Tami Shultz asked him a question about uniforms violations. This account is backed up by the recording of the meeting, which Murray made openly and with Irvin's knowledge.

The altercation occurred an hour and four minutes into the meeting, about 10 minutes after Irvin had started taking questions from employees. Shultz held up a copy of the "Professional Image and Uniform Policy," a document she told us later was specifically created by Irvin. She noted that the document says all employees are required to wear uniforms and steel-toed boots while on the job. Irvin agreed. She asked, "The foremen too?" Irvin replied, "That includes the foremen, too, yes." Shultz then asked why a certain foreman had not been penalized for not wearing a uniform. Irvin said that the employee in question should be wearing one and instructed Shultz to give Caudill the employee's name.

It's at this point things go crazy.

Shultz says that when she was given the direction to talk to Caudill, she rolled her eyes. "I know I shouldn't have done that," Shultz admits. "But I instinctively rolled my eyes because Bob Caudill doesn't listen. It just goes in one ear and out the other."

But roll her eyes she did. And according to several witnesses, when Irvin saw her do that, he pushed back the lapels of his blazer, ran across the room—Shultz was 15 rows back, she says—and got in her face, about half a foot away.

"You're asking me why they should have to wear it? Yes! I'm trying not to lose my temper but …" Irvin said heatedly, before the recording becomes unintelligible with people shouting.

He finally made himself heard above the crowd. "But I don't know what foreman you're talking about! I need to know what foreman you're talking about!" And then several people, including Shultz, shouted out the foreman's name.

Another employee at the meeting who declined to give her name for fear of retribution confirmed Murray and Shultz's account. She also said Irvin did the same thing to her in a meeting about a year ago, after she questioned a statement he made about how UT promotes its employees.

"He's that close and, like, you don't know what he's going to do. … He's not very professional at all. If he's going to be over 220-something or however many people, he needs to learn how to control his temper."

According to Josh Smyser, a custodial employee who was also present at the Thursday meeting, Irvin lost his temper in a similar fashion at a staff meeting in March, held to address the same allegations of mistreatment.

"I was surprised he even let anyone ask questions this time," Smyser says, adding that Irvin's temper makes it less likely anyone will approach him about problems in the department, although Irvin stressed throughout both meetings his open-door policy.

"It kind of gives the lie to what he's saying about respect, if he's just going to blow up about boots. If he can't keep his cool about something like that, is he going to keep his cool if you approach him about something like racist remarks? I don't think so," Smyser says.

Irvin is on vacation this week and did not respond to an e-mail. However, UT spokesperson Amy Ragsdale Blakely says she spoke with Irvin and he denies physically intimidating Shultz. (We provided both Irvin and the Office of Communications with copies of the audio recording of the incident.)

"Dave says it was frustrating and he did raise his voice," Blakely says. "He responded the best way he could and tried to keep it under control. … He did not, would not get in her face." Blakely says if Irvin ever got anywhere close to Shultz, it's because he has a tendency to wander around while talking.

Still, last Thursday's meeting was supposed to be an attempt by administrators to quell growing outrage within the custodial staff at their treatment at the hands of supervisors. This meeting was supposed to be different from March's meeting in that the foremen of the shift workers were not allowed to be present, in order to encourage otherwise intimidated employees to speak up.

But the unnamed employee says that within 30 minutes of the meeting's end, her foreman approached her about remarks she made at the meeting that he perceived as being critical, despite not being in attendance.

After this meeting, employees say they're doubtful any number of future meetings will produce the desired results: respect.

"We have been misled for so long," Murray says. "I think he's only having these meeting with us now because he doesn't want the upper hands to find out what's been going on."