Outsourcing labor causes stir in facilities

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Custodial closet in the Maker Athletic Center. Photo by Mary Kate Leonard

From a student’s perspective, the transition is subtle: where facilities workers’ shirts once bore “University of Dallas,” they now are embroidered with three letters, “HES.”

But from a facilities worker’s perspective, the decision of the university to outsource facilities management — one of many cost-saving initiatives in the past year — has been anything but trivial. On the contrary, workers have been faced with a tremendous increase in their work load and some disruptions to their benefits, despite the university’s efforts for continuity. 

Dora Chicas has worked at the University of Dallas for four years, scrubbing Jerome’s bathroom floors and mopping Haggar’s foyer, while happily striking up conversations with any Spanish-speaking student who says hello. But after the recent changes to the facilities department at UD, her last day cleaning UD was Oct. 29th. 

Chicas, who has worked for over 24 years in the custodial industry in facilities ranging from New York City to Dallas, said the new company is “the worst” company she had ever worked for. 

The new company, HES Facilities Management, is a national leader in custodial services for higher education, according to their website. They have recently acquired smaller companies, like WFF Facility Services and Clean Tec, and aspire to continue “to grow rapidly” in coming years, according to a press release from Dec. 2020. 

When UD notified workers of the change in late May, Chicas said that she and her coworkers were stunned.

 “We were left in shock,” she said in Spanish.

Chicas said the work she had to do after the transition was  “much, much, much, much” harder. 

As soon as she arrives early in the morning, she begins “running.” She has to clean all of the offices in upstairs Haggar, the Haggar bathrooms, the health clinic, the library bathrooms, the music department and Gorman lecture hall. She tries her best to clean offices before faculty arrive. Before HES took over, there were separate staff who would clean the offices at night. Now, it falls to her. 

In the afternoon, Chicas said that she goes to help her friend and coworker, Rosa, clean the dorms. 

“I run fast to go help her because I have to help her [so we can finish in time],” Chicas said. 

Due to labor shortages, HES consolidated the cleaning crew in the traditional dormitories. Where there used to be five people, each assigned to a dorm, there are now only three total, according to Chicas. 

Before the transition to HES, facilities workers were employed directly by the university and earned the same benefits as any university employee. 

Executive Vice President John Plotts said that the university took many measures to make sure the employees were cared for in the transition.

“The goal was to minimize as much as possible the impact on the employee,” said Plotts. 

The decision to outsource facilities work to HES was one of the many effects of the university-wide cost-reduction program last year, according to Plotts. Most of the funds came out of academic departments, but the administration had to reduce its costs by $600,000. 

When HES was initially solicited for an offer, they produced a plan that would have saved the school $200,000. According to Plotts, President Jonathan Sanford negotiated the contract so that employees could retain their benefits and hourly wage.

“We spent $100,000 to try to keep [the employees] consistent with where they were,” said Plotts.

That figure enabled employees to maintain the same hourly wage they earned before the transition and to cash out vacation time that they had earned with UD, if they elected to do so. It also allowed UD to monetize the difference between the retirement plan from UD and that of HES, and to pay that back to the employees.

Additionally, UD negotiated with HES so that the employees would not have to wait a year to begin to accrue paid time off — as the company otherwise demands — and that the years they have worked at UD would count towards other accrued benefits. Also, all facilities employees will continue to receive the university tuition benefit. 

“I don’t think we could have done anything more to keep everyone whole than we did,” said Plotts.  

The area of the most concern for employees, including Dora, was the removal of sick time. While UD distinguishes sick time and paid time off, HES consolidated them into general paid time off. Thus, former UD employees lost the sick time that they had accrued with the university. 

Plotts said that HES promised to work with employees who get sick or have to care for sick children, although he’s not sure how that has played out. 

While prior employees receive the same wage as before the transition, new hires earn $15 per hour. If they were not so short on staff, they would earn less than that, according to indeed.com, which states that HES usually pays custodians $11.45 per hour. In 2021, new hires for UD facilities earned $13 per hour, according to Mary E. Fleck, who heads UD’s Human Resources office.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for one single person working full time in Dallas County, Texas, is $15.21 per hour. If there is also a spouse working full time and three children living at home, as Chicas has, the living wage is $24 per hour, according to MIT. The calculator is commonly used by local governments to assess wages. The minimum wage for Texas is $7.25.  

K’Mya Nickerson and her husband both began working for HES Facilities Management at UD in early October. They are trying to buy a home for themselves and their two dogs, Kingston and Kilo, a pitbull and a chihuahua. She said that the shortage of facilities staff has been evident.

“It’s a bit [of] a lot,” she said. She works from 4 p.m. to midnight, cleaning eight to nine buildings with a team of six people.

Nickerson said that $15 per hour seems a little low for the area, but that she thinks it is reasonable for the work that they are doing. 

“As long as I get to feed my family, I’m not really complaining about how much I got to do,” Nickerson said. “What they ask me to do, I do it.”

Within hours after The University News reached out to Randy Vandervort, the HES manager at UD, regarding this article, workers were notified to not speak to The News, according to two sources.  Chicas said she was not concerned about The News publishing her comments, but other workers said they were afraid to speak to The News for fear it would put their jobs at risk. Vandervort did not respond to multiple emails.

Tod Eskra, senior vice president of sales and marketing at HES, said that HES worked with UD to ensure a smooth transition. 

“Through thoughtful collaboration with the University of Dallas, HES has been able to transition the UD team members to HES with the same — or better — wages, benefits, and job responsibilities. We are proud of every member of the UD program that has chosen to move to HES,” said Eskra in an email. 

Dora said that many of her team members have left UD or plan to leave soon. On her last day, HES offered Dora a promotion, but she declined.

John Médaille, adjunct theology professor and an author renowned for his books discussing Catholic social teaching, said that UD, as a Catholic institution, has a responsibility to follow Catholic principles. 

“You can outsource the management but you cannot outsource the responsibility,” Médaille said. 

Médaille said that the financial benefit that may result from outsourcing labor to HES cannot be at the expense of the workers themselves. 

According to Médaille, taking away benefits that are necessary for family life is contrary to Catholic social teaching. 

“For [those benefits] to not be part of your economic life is to divorce economic life from family life, which is exactly counter to … every word you’ve heard in the social encyclicals. We should be trying to unite what the modern world has divided.”

Plotts said that Catholic social teaching was, in fact, what guided the transition process. 

“Catholic social teaching, although maybe it was not formally stated during the process, were the guidelines we were trying to follow,” said Plotts. 

He said that they want to give all employees, “not only a living wage but also objective, just and transparent pay.” 

Chicas said that she does not plan to immediately search for another job. She will spend the coming months helping her husband, José, organize his trucking business, while caring for their three remaining children living at home.

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