While Ohio University touts a record-setting freshman class of 4,441 students, it still lags behind in hiring more staff to take care of the needs of those students.
American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1699 members sought to bring attention to that disparity during a rally Friday in front of OU’s alumni gate.
A group of about 40 people, which consisted of Local 1699 members, as well as other union members from across the region listened to speakers, waved posters and handed out drinks and pizza.
Besides union leaders and students, local elected officials in attendance included Athens County Commissioners Charlie Adkins and Lenny Eliason, Athens County Treasurer Ric Wasserman, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson and City Councilmember Solveig Spjeldnes.
Ted Linscott, president of Southeastern Ohio Central Labor Council (CLC) AFL-CIO, has lived in Athens his entire life. He noted that the city and university have a symbiotic relationship.
“They’ve got some responsibility in this relationship to be a good member of the community and to do the right things around here,” said Linscott, who also is a 42-year member of Bricklayers Local 52 and retired bricklayer.
When the university had budget issues, AFSCME members understood and did what needed to be done. The union contract is set to end in March 2023.
“But right now, we’re back to where they’ve got a record enrollment rate right now,” Linscott said. “There’s more students going to Ohio University than there ever has. And we’re down to about 440 members right now. That’s the folks that are cleaning the buildings and preparing the food, maintenance in the building, keeping the heat on, all that kind of stuff … doing those kind of jobs that keep this place rolling and keeping things going.”
The starting salary for something in a janitorial position $12.50 a hour, some union members told Linscott, who estimated it to be between $12 and $13 an hour.
“I’m sorry folks, that’s poverty wages,” Linscott said with a laugh. “It’s gotta change. … We’re doing more with less. You keep doing more with less — we’re getting good at doing more with less — but sooner or later, you get less with less. And that’s what is happening right now.”
Some staff wages are not enough to raise a family, said Neil Fowler, who works in the OU facilities management department.
“If you have a family of three people — yourself, your spouse, your partner, a kid — what is starting wage is here is federal poverty level wages, you know,” he said. “Is the university proud of that? I don’t know if they’re proud about it, but they’re not ashamed enough about it to do anything about it. Because they don’t give a damn about their employees.”
Sean Grayson, president of AFSCME Ohio Council 8, noted that generations of residents of Athens and surrounding counties have taken care of Ohio University.
“All we’re asking for is the right to that again, up to the standards that we have set for ourselves,” he said. “These workers have set high standards. They want to make sure that Ohio University is a place where students can learn, teachers and professors can teach, and coworkers can work in a safe, healthy and comfortable environment. And right now, that’s not happening. It’s not happening because our workers are being asked to work with less.”
Since the pandemic, while the staff has lost jobs, more than 400 administrative jobs have been added, said Betty Emmert, a member of OU’s custodial staff.
Employees are told to clean more areas each day due to the lack of workers.
“I clean three buildings, over 50,000 square feet every day,” she said. “And now, office people have to take care of their own trash and recycling. Managers get bonuses when they save money. They need to think of the employees and the students and put the bonus money where it should go, such as hiring new employees and buying equipment to do our jobs efficiently.”
Adkins, a retired bricklayer who worked at OU for over 30 years and served as Local 699 president for 20 years, stressed the importance of a stronger relationship between the union and OU.
“When I was president, I could walk to Cutler Hall. I had the vice president’s cell phone number,” he said. “I could walk in and have a conversation … There’s so much going on, so much that people can’t get along anymore. ... They don’t want you folks to have any rights. They don’t want to hear from you. So we need to get back. They need to get back to where they listen to the local union leadership and do the right thing and get wages up.”
If it wasn’t for the students, the workers and the OU leadership wouldn’t be here, said Dan Maccabee, OU groundskeeper.
“When I first started working here. The room where I did my interview, on the door it said, ‘The students are not an interruption to our business, but the reason for it.’ … Unfortunately our current leadership doesn’t seem to understand that,” he said.
If the leadership cared about students they’d make sure they had food to eat in the cafeterias or clean toilets, Maccabee said.
“We love you guys,” he said to the students. “We want you to get the care that you deserve, that you pay for, that you should have every single day, all the time, 24/7. We love the students. We want you to be here. We need you to be here and please understand that it’s not because of us that we’re not there for you.”
During a recent meeting of the OU Student Senate, President Hugh Sherman said the university is creating a plan recommending wage increases for employees.
“It’s not going to be a significant raise all at one time, but we have to look at a way to start raising wages,” he said.
The university has endured tough financial times during the past few years, so a pay increase is a major issue that needs to be addressed, Sherman said.
“During the last four years while this university has been going through a financial crisis, wages and salaries have been basically frozen for everyone — that’s faculty and staff,” he said. “For me, it’s an issue of developing a multi-year compensation program to try and get everyone’s wages back up to where they should be. For an organization to be successful, we have to be able to attract and retain excellent people.”
Ohio University values its AFSCME employees and appreciated their commitment to fostering the "safe, healthy campus environment in which our community lives, learns and works," said Dan Pittman, university spokesperson, in a press release.
"Since March 2020, all facilities management and safety employees who were impacted by layoffs have been provided the opportunity to return to (Ohio University)," Pittman said. "Additionally, our culinary division has now returned to pre-COVID staffing levels and extended staff appointments from nine-month academic year appointments to full 12-month appointments. In recent months, we have also hired an additional eight residential custodial services employees and nine building and grounds staff."
These measures have allowed OU to ensure appropriate campus service, daily cleaning and maintenance of high-touch facilities, Pittman said.
"To date, multiple bargaining unit job postings remain available to interested applicants, and new opportunities will continue to be added," he continued. "We look forward to continuing to work with both AFSCME and our collective bargaining unit partners to fill these open roles."
AFSCME Local 1699 represents about 416 members at OU’s Athens, Chillicothe, Lancaster, Southern and Zanesville campuses.
An online petition supporting AFSCME Local 1699 can be found at https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/rescind-the-cuts-restore-staffing-levels