Facilities Services workers demonstrate at U. of C.; union cites staffing, safety and pay as key issues

Members of the University of Chicago Labor Council, including Facilities Services workers Bernard Gillespie (fourth from left), Oscar Charo (second from left) and Joe Pruim (left), pose while distributing leaflets on the Quad. The Service Employees International Union has been leading contract negotiations for Facilities Services workers since June. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Unionized employees with University of Chicago Facilities Services say staffing, workforce safety and wages are top concerns as they enter the fourth month of contract negotiations.

Some 152 members of the union, who work on groundskeeping, carpentry, plumbing, painting, locks and structural mechanics on campus are covered by the Service Employees International Union Local 73, which is also leading negotiations for Chicago Park District workers ahead of a potential strike.

“Basically, we’re having a hard time getting them to staff the numbers with all of the new buildings that are coming up,” said grounds crew head Travis Clark, who accused the university of “lowering their costs through attrition: they haven’t been hiring in many, many years.”

Local union members pointed to a November 2018 study by APPA, an educational facilities professional group, which reported a 22% reduction in Facilities Services staff and an 8% increase in university square footage over 3 years. The report warned about an increasing Facilities Services age profile and the pending loss of institutional knowledge, especially as new and renovated space requires staff to have a higher skill level.

Nearly half of the university’s buildings are 70 years old or older, furthermore increasing maintenance and operational requirements.

“Facility organizations are by nature lean and operate as close to the ‘bone’ as possible,” the report read. “However, based on our review, the [Facilities Management Evaluation Program] team believes that the current fiscal environment for Facilities Services creates a situation where the organization is into the ‘bone’ and puts the success of their mission and the institution at risk.”

Clark said that Facility Services’ work orders filled have increased 28%. “Basically, we’re doing more with fewer people, and more buildings are coming online. Some of the older buildings are being retrofitted,” he said. “All that’s going to take a lot more effort and man hours to operate than we currently have. They’re not counting that into equation when they’re going in to hire new engineers or new people for the positions.”

Joe Pruim, the local president, said the 100,000-square-foot, under-construction Rubeinstein Forum, 1201 E. 60th St., has only one building engineer allocated to it when Building Owners and Managers Association trade association standards require an engineer for every 54,000 square feet.

“The carpenters are getting another 100,000 square feet that we have to work out with less staffing,” he added. “We can’t perform at the quality level that we should be able to give to the university. There’s things that are missed if you don’t have the proper staff.”

Clark said some items on the maintenance backlog have been sourced out of Facilities Services. Pruim added that the university’s steam plants are understaffed, which he said could be catastrophic during the coming winter.

Oscar Charo, who works at the steam plants, said staffing levels are at a critical point at the facilities at 5617 S. Maryland Ave. and 6053 S. Blackstone Ave.

“In order to operate, we need at least eight individuals at each location during the wintertime. Right now, we have eight at the plant on 61st and six for our plant on 56th,” he said. “We need at least two more of them, but if something were to happen — if someone gets sick or two people can’t come in when the weather gets tough — we really don’t have anybody to supplement.”

Charo said four more workers are needed, especially to have manpower to respond to leaky pipes or steam interruptions around campus. He sounded the alarm for more workers to be hired soon; he said training takes a month.

Pruim said things have gotten worse in recent years, echoing the APPA report’s findings that outgoing workers have not been replaced. “They’re seeing what they can do, cutting the fat thinner and thinner every year,” he said.

Union employees complained about working for wages below inflation, saying their peers at Northwestern University are much better paid, but did not give specifics, noting the different salaries earned by different types of Facility Services employees. They said raises have generally been limited to 2% annually and that health care costs are increasing.

“Comparatively with other universities, we’re underpaid, with this being the most-expensive university in the United States,” Clark said. “We wonder why they’re able to make large, comparable projects and not fund those projects with the ability to make them work properly.”

He said snow- and trash-clearing operations are not staffed in new buildings, with already-assigned workers tasked to expand their responsibilities. With workers largely laboring alone, he also expressed concern over hypothermia and equipment accidents.

Bernard Gillespie, the local vice president and a building engineer, said negotiations have been “up and down.” He said the union has brought up concerns that the pay is pushing Facilities Services workers to other opportunities after only a few years at the U. of C., limiting talent aggregation. 401(k) plans replaced pensions a few years ago; Gillespie said they are inferior and that retirement plans are an ongoing bargaining issue.

“The University has really come to a point where they feel like giving us policies that are implemented for non-union staff … is like giving us a reward,” he said. The SEIU achieved comparable parental leave policies for its Facilities Services workers that non-union U. of C. employees get, but Gillespie said it was an equalizing move and not a major concession.