Published Wednesday, October 5, 2011 8:08 pmby Sommer Brokaw of The Charlotte Post.
Change within the UNC-Chapel Hill housekeeping department is necessary and must come immediately, according to the PRM Consulting Group’s recently-released report with its findings and recommendations.
UNC hired PRM in March following a series of serious allegations of harassment, discrimination and unfair treatment in that department.
During fourth months of study, PRM Consulting Group met individually with over 400 UNC employees including housekeeping staff, supervisors and managers, human resources staff and key leadership team members, and UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp.
They also surveyed 355 housekeepers including 212 English speaking, of whom 86 percent are African American, and 143 non-English speaking that required translators to facilitate the interview prior to coming up with their findings and recommendations.
Overall results showed that the current practices in the housekeeping department “have created a culture with employee morale issues, lack of trust, and overall frustration.”
In surveys, over 30 percent of housekeeping employees disagreed or strongly disagreed with the following statement: that management promotes an environment of treating employees with dignity and respect. More than 47 percent of English-speaking housekeepers disagreed with that statement, whereas only 11.2 percent of non-English speaking respondents disagreed.
“PRM is concerned that the relatively low levels of disagreement from the non-English speaking employees stems from a fear of retaliation,” the report states. It continues: “The comparison findings for several questions between English and non-English respondents had similar distinctive results when race was considered, creating an even more troubling perception by the housekeeping staff.”
The dominant theme of many comments in the surveys was that race is a strong factor in assigning tasks. Some employees felt that Burmese employees are given more work than others because they will not complain. Several African-American employees indicated that they felt that management favors Burmese and Hispanic employees.
One of the recommendations was that UNC consider a “Safe to Say” program that would encourage employees to report concerns without fear of retaliation.
The university released PRM Consulting Group’s report on Sept. 29, which contains 45 recommendations, at staff meetings for first, second, and third shift housekeepers. Media and students were not allowed into meetings because it was for housekeeping staff only. Laurel Ashton, a leader of UNC Student Action with Workers, said that she waited outside the building on the steps until housekeepers came out to gauge their reaction. From her conversations with them, she said that she got the sense that the report seems accurate, but she also heard a lot of pessimism about whether the administration will take the appropriate measures to make changes. “I heard one housekeeper say: ‘same ship, different day.’ I heard another housekeeper say ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’” she said.
Last month, housekeepers delivered a petition to Thorp to remove and reassign Tonya Sell, the assistant director of housekeeping, who was not available for comment. Ashton said that she believes the consultant firm was hired because of the public outcry and ongoing protests against the mistreatment of housekeepers. “It is because housekeepers have been struggling publicly and have been involving students and community members that the university had to bring someone in because they were looking so bad,” she said.
Thorp sent an email to UNC faculty and staff on the evening of Sept. 29 with a link to the full report posted online on the University’s human resources web page. “I am absolutely committed to making things right in Housekeeping Services,” he wrote in the email. “We have been working to fix these problems, but those sincere attempts have fallen short.”
He added: “We currently have a unique opportunity to introduce change in Housekeeping Services leadership. For now, Lea Holt, the interim director will continue in that role. The university will immediately begin recruiting for a permanent director of Housekeeping Services and expects to hire that person as quickly as possible.” University spokesperson Karen Moon confirmed that effective Sept. 28, Bill Burston, former housekeeping director, is no longer employed by UNC.
Thorp also indicated that the university has developed an action plan incorporating many of PRM’s ideas and will take some immediate steps and longer-term steps. One of these steps is to provide and require English as a Second Language programs for current Housekeeping Services employees without conversational English ability.
“First and foremost, we’re going to establish an advisory committee made up of a diverse group of employees from all shifts who will be able to not only feed us ideas on what we can do, but also share with us how they view some of the things we do are impacting them as employees,” said Brenda Malone, vice chancellor of human resources. “We think that just charting the course of action and sticking to it will go a long way toward restoring confidence in the university.” Malone added that they were aware of some of these problems a year ago. “I’m not going to say I was surprised by the results, but I found the results to be sobering and certainly everyone at this university is committed to addressing that, and that’s what we’re going to start doing now.”
“I want to see it to believe it,” said a UNC housekeeper Odessa Davis, regarding the advisory committee. George James, another UNC housekeeper, added: “Public recognition that problems in the department have continually mounted despite the successful lawsuit filed against the university 15 years ago empowers us. Yet these same conditions exist which illustrates that UNC-CH failed to honor the labor agreement signed with the then-Housekeepers Association in 1996 setting the stage for multiple class action lawsuits in 2011 …We recognize that all though an investigation of Housekeeping Services sounds fair to the community-at-large how these recommendations are implemented at the grassroots level will be a challenge.”