It took university housekeepers several minutes to muster up the courage to report mistreatment by their employers at a forum Tuesday designed to give a voice to those who have long been silent.
But as they took their turns at the microphone, reports of alleged sexual harassment, racial discrimination and abuse at their on-campus workplace poured out — claims that have also surfaced over the last two months in various departments.
“I’ve been sexually harassed at least three times,” said one housekeeper in Spanish, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of job security. She said although she’s reported the incidents to human resources several times, no action has been taken.
“What do I have to do? Do I have to be raped before someone does something?” she asked, as university alumna Andrea Zamudio translated into English.
Following a similar forum last month, Frank Brewer — the acting vice president for administrative affairs and Facilities Management director — appeared for a second time at Nyumburu Cultural Center on Tuesday morning to listen to reports of workplace mistreatment and to unveil his department’s plan for tackling an emerging on-campus trend.
This university’s chapter of the Black Faculty and Staff Association hosted both events, each of which netted an attendance of more than 100 employees, students and administrators.
“I’m certainly concerned by the employee’s complaints, particularly that employee who has alleged she’s been a victim of sexual harassment,” Brewer said after the forum. “So we’ll take this all in and figure out what the next steps are.”
While representatives from the university’s human resources department unveiled a mandatory employee training program — dubbed “As Simple as Respect” and set to launch next week — most of Tuesday’s forum was spent primarily listening to the housekeepers themselves.
For many housekeepers, however, it wasn’t easy to speak out. At one point, BFSA President Solomon Commissiong had to encourage more staff to come forward when the small line in front of the microphone had dwindled.
But when the first housekeeper — Rosa Ibarra — took the microphone, that all quickly changed.
Speaking in Spanish — while Zamudio translated into English — Ibarra spoke passionately for more than five minutes amidst clapping and cheering from her co-workers.
Ibarra alleged that she and her colleagues are often overworked, noting that last week managers allegedly forced her Facilities Management team to complete eight hours of work in just four. On a more personal note, Ibarra also said she was unable to visit her sick husband in the hospital for fear of getting in trouble with her supervisor.
“She said she is tired of this culture of intimidation and fear,” Zamudio translated. “She just wants to do her work in peace.”
Three of the five housekeepers who spoke out described incidents of alleged sexual harassment, while others chronicled alleged racial discrimination. Most held back tears as they made their stories known.
“A lot of Latino workers feel like they don’t have rights, and because they’re seen as good workers they are given more work, which she thinks is an injustice,” Zamudio translated for housekeeper Nery Alfraro Paz.
As the scheduled 45-minute forum began to approach the two hour mark, several staff members reiterated what many have said since reports of employee mistreatment in Facilities Management first surfaced in March — that the human resources department is on manager’s side.
But Nancy Yeroshefsky, the assistant director for Facilities Management’s human resources department, said this is not the case.
“That’s not our role,” Yeroshefsky said in an interview last week. “We’re here to make sure we do the right thing, not try to cover the university.”
Employee relations manager Sharon Simmons said human resources does take disciplinary action when supervisors overstep their boundaries, but because managers are also protected with confidentiality, employees often do not know of their punishments.
“I’m often very disappointed when staff do come to me when a complaint comes up and says, ‘Oh, but you can’t tell my supervisor,’ because it’s difficult to do anything about it without going to the individual to get their side of the story, because there are two sides,” Simmons said. “How do you investigate facts if you don’t know what the facts are first?”
Two years ago, long before Facilities Management employees shared these grievances, Yeroshefsky and Simmons developed an employee training program to help both supervisors and employees foster dialogue called “As Simple as Respect.” The three-hour program was piloted this semester and will be offered twice a month starting next week.
Some employees, however, said they remain skeptical that it will have an impact on workplace environments.
“You say you’ve been working on this for two years, but I’m curious as to why I’m just now hearing about this,” groundskeeper John Reinhardt said. “This is crisis management more than anything else, just a knee-jerk reaction, and it is at least 14 years overdue.”
Simmons said the program had been tested and yielded “very successful” results. She also urged staff to use the available university channels whenever cases of abuse arise.
“Please, please, please don’t suffer in silence,” Simmons told the audience. “Report it to someone so some action can be taken.”
However, some staff members and housekeepers said they will fear for their jobs until concrete action is taken by university administrators.
Operations and maintenance worker Bob Dickerson alleged someone had been circulating a Wanted Dead or Alive poster with his picture after he was photographed attending a protest in March at the Main Administration Building against alleged Facilities Management workplace abuse. He said when he went to human resources officials, they brushed it off as a joke.
“We’re told report this and that and this and that, but I don’t believe anyone takes it seriously,” Dickerson said at the forum, as the audience erupted in applause. “I just believe this is lip service, and I don’t believe a word of it.”
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