UT custodian event

Joyce Leeper, a custodian who spoke at the event.

Last November, when administration announced that UT would not be providing hazard pay or a higher minimum wage for frontline campus workers, Brandon Risley, who works as a custodian in Hess Hall, was in disbelief.

“We’re underpaid like no other,” Risley said. “The hazard pay is one thing, but the pay in general for this company is ridiculous.”

Facilities workers spent months in the fall fighting for hazard pay of $2.50 an hour and a minimum wage of $15, which they see as the minimum livable wage.

Risley says that his brother’s girlfriend makes more than him as a cashier at Walgreens and her mother, recently out of prison, makes more at her factory job than he does. Neither of them has to pay for parking at their workplaces either, as Risley and other facilities workers do.

While making clear that UT would not provide hazard pay or increase the minimum wage, Chancellor Plowman touted the current $10 minimum wage for campus workers, which is higher than the state minimum wage of $7.25.

But Risley and his co-workers do not see the current pay as sufficient for the high-risk situations that the COVID-19 pandemic has put them in. Not only are they some of the only employees on campus who cannot work remotely, but they are not guaranteed pay when home sick with COVID-19.

“We’re around sick people right now, and we’re risking getting sick,” Risley said. “And once we do get sick, we have to use our own time to be off.”

With the expiration of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) on Dec. 31, 2020, campus workers who have already used their emergency paid sick leave are expected to use their own time if they get COVID-19 or else go without pay.

In addition to concerns about fair pay, campus workers fear that they are being disincentivized to get tested for COVID-19. Unlike students, they must outsource a test and could face up to two weeks without pay as a consequence of a positive test result. For those who live check-to-check, a positive test is something to be avoided at all costs.

“They tell us to go down to the clinic to get tested, but you got these students on campus that don’t have to go to clinics,” Risley said. “All they gotta do is spit into a tube and bring it down into the lobby and I kept arguing, like, why … can’t we take the test while we’re at work? Why do we have to go to the clinic and they don’t? Makes no sense. It just goes to show that UT really doesn’t care for us.”

DeeDee Cotner, who works on housekeeping staff in Clement Hall, says she was the only member of the building’s staff to go get tested when it was discovered that a co-worker had tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s like someone in every building has had COVID,” Cotner said. “They say well, should I go get a COVID test, then they said, it’s up to you. What do you mean it’s up to you? This is important and you all are playing it like it’s nothing. Oh well, it’s up to you but you can’t do it on UT time.”

The pay gap between administrators and facilities workers is wide enough to hide another discrepancy between the highest and lowest paid employees on campus: those making decisions about compensation often have the option of working from home, away from sick students and colleagues, and facilities workers do not.

“Put yourself in our shoes for a minute and look at what we go through on a daily basis because you’re not in here with us,” Cotner said, when asked what message she would like to send to administration. “You don’t get to see what we see and what we have to do and what we have to clean up … it’s different when you’re at home telling someone what to do.”

Over winter break, facilities workers continued to work on campus amid a daily COVID-19 death toll surpassing 10 lives a day in Knox County. Cotner and her fellow campus workers think this fact alone should be enough to get administration to speak with them about the risks they are facing.

“It’s our job and be thankful that you have a job, but just please talk to us,” Cotner said. “You know, when you see how many people are dying a day, I think it’s time for a little sit-down. You know, split us up into groups. Come and talk to us and let us know how you feel and how we feel.”

Many facilities workers say they feel unheard by administrators, even though they are the employees on the front line in the fight against COVID-19 on campus.

“A lot of people want to know why. You know, why does UT not give hazard pay? Really, why? If people working at the grocery store are getting it and other places on the front line … why?” Cotner said. “I don’t understand why you don’t feel like we deserve it. Do you not feel like we are on the front lines?”

This is not to say that administration has not expressed a general level of appreciation for custodians and housekeeping staff, who have made the on-campus experience this year possible. But Cotner would like to see an actual dialogue take place between those who feel they need more pay and those with the power to give it.

“‘We appreciate you, thank you for this and this.’ And I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like it,” Cotner said. “For our appreciation gift this year they gave us some plastic silverware and a piece of cake. So you know the staff doesn’t really feel appreciated during a pandemic.”

Joyce Leeper works alongside Cotner in Clement Hall and has been on housekeeping staff for more than 10 years. A vocal advocate for hazard pay and a higher minimum wage, Leeper works with the United Campus Workers (UCW), a union fighting for fair pay for UT staff, and was one of the few facilities workers to speak at the hazard pay rally held last October.

Leeper worries about what may happen when students, many of whom disregard safety precautions and avoid getting tested, return this week for the spring semester. As the consistently high COVID-19 case counts in Knoxville and the new lack of guaranteed paid sick leave make clear, the situation for campus workers is not getting better or going away soon.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis where students are gonna be coming back,” Leeper said.

“We’re looking forward to everyone being back, but like I said … we cannot work from home. We need (hazard pay) more than any, ‘cause we’re here 24/7.”

The argument against hazard pay and a higher minimum wage seems to hinge on the assumption that campus workers do not strictly need a raise. Leeper and her fellow frontline workers disagree.

“You gotta have something to survive on,” Leeper said. “It’s hard to say that we don’t need it ‘cause we do.”

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