Custodial outsourcing a poor choice

As former president of the Tech chapter of the American Association of University Professors, I was privileged to sit in on a meeting between Tech custodians; Karly Safar, United Campus Workers organizer; President Bob Bell; Claire Stinson, Tech’s business and fiscal affairs vice president; state Reps. John Mark Windle and Charles Curtiss; and state Sen. Charlotte Burks Feb. 3 in Nashville. As an observer, I was gratified to see the efforts which Tech and our state representatives went to, to try to preserve good quality jobs in the Upper Cumberland area. As most readers of The Oracle are undoubtedly aware by now, Tech is considering outsourcing the custodial staff.

Though a task force to study the question of outsourcing has been formed on the issue, I am concerned about assurances I hear being made about the security checks which outsourcing agencies like GCA Services carry out. Both Bell and Stinson have said that outsourcing agencies perform even more careful background checks on custodians than Tech itself does in hiring (cf. quote by Bell March 18 “The Herald-Citizen,” A-2 and “The Oracle,” Page 1). How can this be true?

I ask this because of the well known public record of failure to screen employees adequately by outsourcing agencies. For instance, there was a case here in Putnam County last spring involving GCA Services and an egregious oversight in employment practices.

According to a May 19, 2010 Herald Citizen story by Mary Jo Denton, an employee of GCA Services working as a custodian at Northeast Elementary School here in Cookeville was accused of a prior charge of statutory rape and taken into custody by Cookeville police officers.

On Jan. 11, the same company was found to have hired an illegal immigrant and known felon in Columbia, Tenn. at E.A. Cox Middle School, a fact that was widely reported in Middle Tennessee media.

On April 28, 2010 WSMV-TV news out of Nashville reported several egregious instances of outsourcing agencies that were grossly negligent in hiring:

According to The Jackson Sun, a GCA custodian was accused of raping a 16-year-old student in 2008, during school hours-and this worker had been arrested in connection with a previous rape.

In San Antonio in 2006, a GCA-employed janitor with a prior burglary arrest was caught stealing from his school, and GCA admitted it knew about that past arrest.

In Fort Worth in 2007, GCA hired a sex offender as a custodian who had used a fake name, and the man suffocated in the boys’ locker room after a sex act.

I don’t know about you, but, after learning this, I hope Tech does a better job than outsourcing agencies in vetting its custodial employees. But, in fact, I know that it does because our custodians at Tech presently are upstanding, dedicated, wonderful individuals, whom I have had the privilege of getting to know better as a result of widespread campus concern about the practice of outsourcing.

It seems that outsourcing agencies do not do a good job of screening employees. Considering the vulnerability of Tech students, faculty and staff, as well as the sensitivity of student information kept on file by the University (not to mention chemicals, biological agents, and even radioactive substances), relying on outside companies with terrible track records to be responsible for people we will practically live with on our campus seems to be very ill-advised.

I hope that members of the task force examining the issue of outsourcing custodians will make themselves aware of the terrible record of GCA services.

If not, any crime committed on campus by custodians hired by outsourcing agencies will be directly attributable to those responsible for contracting outsourcing agencies to hire custodians and possibly others on the Tech campus.

While I appreciate that Tech, like all Tennessee state universities, is suffering from budget shortfalls, there has to be a better way to save money than to go after some of the most poorly paid employees on campus.

Although there are assurances that the present custodians could be re-hired by any outsourcing agency Tech engages, the truth is that there will be nothing to compel the outsourcing company to retain these employees, or to give them the benefits they enjoy now, like health insurance and pensions.

Make no mistake: the practice of outsourcing is a dangerous trend in this country that threatens all of us. According to the book “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker” by Steven Greenhouse (2008), erosion of traditional benefits won after a century of workers fighting for their rights is rampant.

In 1980, 84 percent of workers in companies with more than 100 workers had traditional pensions. Today just one in three does. Companies are increasingly making their employees rely on far riskier 401(k) plans for their retirement income [where] the worker bears the risk of investment losses.

Only about one-third of unemployed workers receive unemployment insurance, down from one-half in the 1950s; Three decades ago, employer-provided health insurance protected 70 percent of private-sector workers. Now it protects 55 percent.

Pell grants have long made it possible for many poor children to go to college. The value of the maximum Pell Grant fell from 84 percent of the average tuition at a four-year public university in the mid-1970s to just 32 percent in 2007.

It is time for us, for all of us, to speak out for what should be human rights: decent employment and good benefits. The American dream is quickly fading away, and perhaps my generation will be the last to glimpse it. It is important for our own safety and well-being on campus to keep our custodians as Tch employees with benefits; if not, will the accountants and outsourcers come for the clerical staff, the administrative staff, even the faculty?

Wake up, Tech. this is already happening with the employment of adjunct instructors with no benefits or job security; the erosion of tenure, one of the foundation stones of the American university system (currently the envy of the world but quickly being subverted); and ever-increasing class sizes.

As reported in “The Oracle” on March 18, there was a demonstration in support of Tech custodians on Dixie and E. 9th St. A similar demonstration is scheduled 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. April 14. A student demonstration is scheduled during dead hour the same day. I hope that anyone concerned about the Tech custodians being outsourced and the issues raised in this editorial will attend this rally to learn more.