A report commissioned by the University of Memphis has echoed claims that physical plant employees were being treated like “slaves,” and U of M President David Rudd has vowed to improve their working conditions.
The report, which came out in October and includes interviews with Physical Plant Department employees, mentions worker “unrest” and a sentiment among employees that they were treated like they were working on a “plantation.”
These claims are not new and go a few years back.
In a letter to the editor in The Daily Helmsman on March 30, 2015, Bennie Price, a custodian at the U of M, was quoted as saying that custodial employees refer to the Physical Plant Department as the “Physical Plantation” on a consistent basis.
The report, created by the Keith McGee Group, consisted of 42 meetings with several small groups. The employees were given confidentiality so they could speak freely.
The report also made several recommendations, including hiring a new vice president of the Physical Plant Department.
Custodial workers said U of M management was doing a poor job at filling vacancies within physical plant, which was stretching the employees too thin, according to the report.
The report also outlined many other concerns including the lack of training for employees, the lack of an employee safety program, few opportunities for employee advancement and an unfair system of addressing disputes with management.
“We clearly have our challenges in the physical plant,” Rudd said. “The complaints have been many and multiple about the overall working conditions and the structure of management.”
Rudd said the University is in the process of hiring a new vice president of the physical plant to help implement the process outlined in the report and improve the environment for the employees.
Documents, obtained through an open records request submitted by The Daily Helmsman, reported there have been reprimands issued in the past against physical plant supervisors.
Mary Beamon, a former U of M custodial employee who resigned May of 2014, has been the most outspoken. She worked at the U of M for five years before she decided she could not take it anymore.
“It was a mix of being treated like a slave and a child in day care,” Beamon said. “We had no respect.”
“What is going on there is against the law, I just know what is going on because I used to work there and still have friends that are stuck there.”
Beamon said on multiple occasions she did not receive adequate pay for the number of hours she worked. She was also written up without reason and victimized by her manager, she said. She said many physical plant employees want to leave their jobs, but are unable to because it is their only source of income.
“They are catching pure hell,” she said. “The only way I see anything changing is if the new vice president really listens to what is going on. It might help, but it might not.”
The March 2015 opinion piece made accusations about Kim McAfee, one of the former physical plant managers, who workers say has failed to address the concerns.
McAfee was unavailable to comment on the slave allegations. Documents provided to The Daily Helmsman last spring indicated this was not the first time complaints about McAfee had risen.
She was accused of not meeting her job expectations as a manager in a memorandum written by Joel Mooney, director of operations.
The memorandum also accuses McAfee of not being able to lead her new employees. She was put on a 60-day probation period on Dec. 5, 2014. She no longer works for the University.
A handwritten note written in April 2015 accused McAfee of “many wrongdoings,” during her time as building manager of the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. The letter is a University of Memphis document that appears to be written by one of her subordinates.
McAfee is not the only manager to be accused of wrongdoings. Kim Wilson, manager of landscape services, was reprimanded for alleged favoritism and “unprofessional behavior” while terminating an employee, according to a memorandum dated March 26, 2015.
University of Memphis documents also show that supervisors were reprimanded for “changing an employee’s work schedule without authorization,” according to a document dated March 30, 2015.
Staff shortages in physical plant department are not new. A document states another manager had to be in charge of multiple areas because they were understaffed on March 31, 2014
The recent report outlined eight recommendations including everything from creating a new parking fee structure for physical plant employees to creating a security protocol for employees who work the overnight shift.
In an letter dated Oct. 8 to the physical plant employees, Rudd said he would take several immediate steps including developing a training program, reviewing wage rates, offering lower cost parking, examining whether night shift employees should be paid differently and reviewing all employee safety issues.
“We greatly value the employees in the physical plant and are committed to getting the issues resolved,” Rudd said. “We believe we will improve the environment for our workers.”