A seven-month, $104,000 investigation by a Washington, D.C., consulting firm confirmed last week what UNC housekeepers have been saying for months through rallies and petitions: "Change in the Housekeeping Department is necessary and must begin immediately."
"While some amount of conflict is inevitable in any working environment," the 121-page report from PRM Consulting states, "PRM believes the level of conflict in the Housekeeping Department is excessive and should be reduced."
UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp hired PRM to conduct an independent review in which 400 housekeeping employees were surveyed. The report was released in closed-door meetings with housekeepers on Thursday before it was posted online.
Among the problematic findings:
- An overwhelming perspective among English-speaking employees that management doesn't care about them, and those in charge condone that perceived mistreatment;
- A relatively low level of disagreement from non-English speakers that stems from fear of retaliation;
- Employees don't know UNC's policies and procedures, and are uncomfortable or unable to adequately raise and address problems;
- Some workers witnessed, or said they were the target of, inappropriate behavior, including being touched, pushed, fondled and spoken to in a sexually explicit manner. There were reports that managers requested sex with employees prior to hiring them, and that managers kissed and dated employees;
- Several employees acknowledged that they paid "substantial sums of money" to get a job.
UNC administrators stressed the need for an immediate response and pledged their commitment to cure the problems. It started with the departure of Director of Housekeeping Bill Burston, which was effective Sept. 28, the day before the PRM report was made public. Lea Holt has served as interim director since June, while Burston remained on staff as an employee in the Campus Services Division.
UNC Vice Chancellor for Human Resources Brenda Malone declined to say if Burston was fired or left voluntarily. She said UNC now has "an opportunity to recruit," as soon as possible, "someone who understands the importance of leading and leading in a charismatic way."
In a campus memo, Thorp announced the creation of an advisory committee of housekeeping employees, a study to determine possible pay discrepancies in the department and a review of recruiting and hiring practices.
PRM's report lends credence to what many housekeepers have alleged for months. Last September, housekeepers and their supporters rallied on Franklin Street and marched to Thorp's office to present a collective grievance after seven full-time housekeepers were suspended without pay for taking unauthorized, though reasonable, breaks. The incidents were later expunged from the records of the employees, who were subsequently paid for the time lost.
The suspensions came amid a Daily Tar Heel feature story on Assistant Housekeeping Director Tonya Sell, a Navy veteran who brought a military-style approach to rule enforcement. Sell's "no sit-down policy" required employees to ask permission for any break—bathroom trips, even a sip of water—or else face punishment.
UNC released a statement clarifying the break policy, including the provision that employees can go to the bathroom without calling a supervisor.
Housekeepers submitted another petition to Thorp last month calling for Sell to be reassigned. Sell remains in her post.
In June, housekeeper Amanda Hulon filed a lawsuit charging that her supervisor, Wade Farrington, offered her a loan in exchange for sex and further harassed her when she declined to accept this proposition.
"Certainly, this stuff doesn't happen overnight, and certainly the university has been made aware that some employees are not satisfied," UNC's Malone said. "We've worked on more training and development and created a stronger relationship with the Employee Forum. There are things done thus far that haven't worked. I don't believe it's a situation where the university just ignored this issue."
Hulon, now a former housekeeper, said she was encouraged by the presentation but skeptical about how the improvements will be implemented. "The whole time that we were in that room, every time the PRM people were speaking, everything they said sounded great, it really did, and if they ran the university, I think it would really change," she said.
"But anytime anyone at UNC spoke, they never said anything clearly ... I really wanted them to say, 'We apologize that things have gotten to this point, and we are working very hard to get it where it needs to be.' If they would have just said that, I would have appreciated them admitting fault, but they didn't say anything like that."
University administrators say they are serious about fixing the problems. Thorp's memo states that "the hard work begins" now and stresses that it will take "time, work and commitment to break the cycles of behavior that have developed in some areas of Housekeeping Services."
"What I'm confident in is that we will do our absolute best to get change," Malone said.