State News

UNC housekeepers think they're treated unfairly

Posted September 30, 2011 9:35 a.m. EDT
Updated September 30, 2011 5:08 p.m. EDT

— A consultant's report examining problems in the troubled housekeeping department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found that university housekeepers believe they are treated unfairly and face retaliation from managers when they complain.

In addition, workers told PRM Consulting Group that management doesn't promote a workplace free of discrimination, harassment and intimidation.

"The overall results indicate that the current practices in the department have created a culture with employee morale issues, lack of trust and overall frustration," the consultants wrote.

PRM interviewed more than 400 employees, including housekeepers, support staff, supervisors and top managers. The university paid about $100,000 for the study.

"It's the kind of thing where you look at all the circumstances and you listen to all the voices and you say, 'Maybe there is a little smoke here,'" said Brenda Malone, UNC's vice chancellor for human resources.

“No question about (it), it’s a step in the right direction” said George James, a housekeeper and first chair delegate to the Employee Forum, a group of workers elected by their peers to address concerns of UNC employees. "(It should) bring some much needed change.”

The consulting firm also found that rumors of favoritism, discrimination and inappropriate sexual relations between some managers and employees cause workers to believe that management in the department is lax. Also, there is a high level of discontent about the hiring of non-speaking English employees, the consultants found.

"There is a perception that Burmese and Latino employees are treated differently than other ethnic groups, thus causing internal conflicts," the report said.

James said conditions at the university are ripe to exploit workers, especially those who do not speak English.

"They're just thankful to be here," he said.

In a message to faculty and staff, Chancellor Holden Thorp pledged to correct problems in the department.

"I am absolutely committed to making things right in Housekeeping Services," Thorp wrote. "We have been working to fix these problems, but those sincere attempts have fallen short."

Thorp said he and other UNC leaders will implement PRM's recommendations – some right away and some over the long-term.

"It will take time, work and commitment to break the cycles of behavior that have developed in some areas of Housekeeping Services," Thorp said. "We have the opportunity to make a fresh start in Housekeeping and reaffirm our commitment to civility, respect and fairness for all."

Some of the changes include more sexual harassment and discrimination training and a review of wages to ensure everyone is being paid fairly.

There have been no personnel changes as a result of the report, and officials said it wasn't intended to investigate specific cases but to take a look at the departmental culture as a whole.

"Now we have a responsibility to do the right thing with (the findings), and I have to tell you, at all levels in this institution, there is a true commitment to do that," Malone said.

Housekeeping staffers have complained about their treatment in the past, but tensions peaked last fall. That was when Tonya Sell, assistant director of Housekeeping Services, instituted a "no sit-down" policy that forbids housekeepers from taking even a short break without first getting it approved by a supervisor.

PRM found only a few employees believed they could take regular breaks without retaliation.

University officials briefed housekeepers on the content of the report Thursday during each of the university's three housekeeping shifts.

Amanda Hulon, a former housekeeper who has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a former housekeeping manager, said she doesn't expect the report to change things.

"PRM, their part sounded really good, and I think that they mean well," Hulon said. "If they could run UNC, it would be great. I just don't see anything changing at all."