Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 20, 2018

View from the Hill: Just when state workers felt safe from outsourcing

Just when workers at the state’s college campuses thought it was safe to go back in the water, corporate sharks are once again circling.

Jones Lang LaSalle, the state’s contractor for facilities management and grounds, asked to make proposals at Tennessee’s 13 junior colleges to see if it can take over. Tennessee’s colleges of applied technology are believed to be in the mix, too.

“The college presidents will receive a customized proposal, tailored to their individual campus, for them to see if there are possible cost savings and whether it makes sense for the college. The decision on whether to contract for any, all or none of the services is the presidents to make,” says Richard Locker, spokesman for the Tennessee Board of Regents.

The uncertainty is eating at campus workers across Tennessee, including those at Pellissippi State in Knoxville who thought the prospects of a JLL takeover died when the University of Tennessee opted not to outsource, leaving Austin Peay as one of the only state universities to contract with the company.

“Most people don’t know much about it or are not interested. But the maintenance department has kind of been through the ringer as far as they would be the first ones,” explains Andy Bevers, who works in IT network support at Pellissippi State.

Under the state contract, which supposedly is being left up to university leaders, no state employees are supposed to lose their jobs. But they can be moved around, up to 50 miles, given different roles or outsourced elsewhere. JLL subcontracts with Diversified Maintenance of Birmingham for janitorial and housekeeping work and BrightView Landscape of Pennsylvania for outdoor work.

How a subcontractor can do the job cheaper and more efficiently – while extracting profits for JLL and subcontractors – than someone who works directly for the institution or state remains somewhat of a mystery. But take it from Gov. Bill Haslam, private business knows best.

Nowhere but in the corporate world can someone spend 20 hours a week on meetings, forcing them to work 20 hours extra just to get their work done. (No wonder divorce rates are so high.)

United Campus Workers isn’t buying the bargain, of course, and neither are the professors at Chattanooga State Community College, where they voted overwhelmingly against outsourcing in a 2017 referendum.

With some 9,500 students and two campuses, Chattanooga State isn’t exactly a sleepy little college. Yet the custodial and maintenance staff are “part of our family,” says professor Michael McCamish.

They take pride in the place where they work, and they do the little things to make campus life meaningful.

For instance, the custodian in charge of the building that houses the Social and Behavioral Science department puts out a massive spread of five different courses for a Christmas potluck.

“So, he’s part of our culture,” McCamish explains. “Obviously, outsourcing is going to dismantle part of that culture. To me and many of us, they are picking on the lowest paid and looking to take advantage of the labor of our lowest-paid people, and it’s just wrong.”

The Haslam Administration likes to “sugar coat” privatization, he adds, but the fine print doesn’t give anyone a guarantee for keeping jobs, benefits or the same workplace.

As a result, professors and college employees are “energized” and working with United Campus Workers to persuade college presidents to avoid outsourcing.

Pointing at Haslam

The same situation is playing out at Southwest Community College in Memphis where workers say the school is being pressured to privatize in the final months of Haslam’s second and last term. Campus workers and Democratic legislators held a press conference recently to raise opposition.

“We don’t want to be caught up in a last-minute push by a lame-duck administration to satisfy what appears to be obligations that are based more on politics than good policy,” says Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who has been a constant critic of outsourcing.

Democrats aren’t the only legislators fussing about outsourcing. Republican Rep. Mike Sparks, who represents the Motlow State campus in Smyrna, says he’s received calls from workers there who fear for their jobs.

“Why do we put a boot on the neck of the janitor?” Sparks asks. “Let’s outsource the top brass.”

In fact, legislators of every stripe came out against privatization a couple of years ago. They questioned state figures showing JLL, which already handles about 10 percent of state office space, could save $35 million by privatizing facilities management at the state’s universities.

Still, the administration went ahead with plans to offer universities a facilities maintenance contract and – lo and behold – JLL got the work. The news was so shocking the foundation of the Legislative Plaza cracked and they had to move the entire operation to the Cordell Hull Building (Just kidding, but you get the idea, maybe).

Incidentally, the Legislature wouldn’t even let JLL handle facilities maintenance at Cordell Hull.

A Motlow State employee, who asked not to be identified out of concern for his job, contends this is the governor’s “big push” before leaving office in January.

“Research shows there’s no good that comes out of it,” the employee says.

News reports have shown Haslam had investments with JLL and that his administration paid the company a $1 million consulting fee to study state buildings before it landed a $330 million, five-year contract to manage Tennessee’s buildings.

The governor’s office has said he had no conflict of interest in the contract being awarded to JLL a year ago and pointed out it was an independent evaluation process led by the state’s Central Procurement Office.

Oddly enough, Haslam reformed the entire UT Board of Regents, then UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport lost her job this year. Asked by a Knoxville newspaper if her firing had anything to do with the university’s decision against outsourcing, Haslam replied he wasn’t pursuing the matter anymore.

Then, up it popped.

United Campus Workers didn’t find out about the renewed effort until an employee at Walters State Community College in Morristown reported JLL held a meeting with the administration there. Then, the union heard more and more.

“That’s why people are especially alarmed, because there was this kind of public declaration that the push to outsource on the campus was over, and, voila, it was not,” explains Thomas Walker, spokesman for UCW.

“There are these corporate folks going all around doing it. They say it was part of their plan all along. But it’s hard to feel trusting toward a group of people who want to buy your job out from under you.”

JLL says it is “tailoring” proposals for every community college. But that’s the same thing the state did two years ago when crunching numbers for universities to sell outsourcing to the Legislature, he adds.

United Campus Workers expects JLL to keep massaging numbers until they work in their favor, knowing it can increase the costs at any time since campuses are on the hook for the contract, Walker contends.

And while it might be able to find a few thousand dollars here and there, it’s not worth risking people’s jobs. It won’t improve service, either, he says.

Walker points toward a recent incident at a UT-Knoxville research facility in which the power went out. Facilities workers responded by putting in 60 straight hours to save all the different components of the research projects.

“JLL, never in a million years, would be able to do something like that,” he says, noting the company’s corporate structure would require a work order that would have to be routed from one office to another before someone would be sent out with a ticket.

“There’s just nothing like having your own people who care about the institution, care about the job,” Walker says, “and who you care about back and show that by being loyal to them and compensating them fairly.”

The question is whether the state and its universities and colleges will continue to care about those who are doing some of the most difficult jobs on campus.

“They are vulnerable. They are the most vulnerable, and so they have no leverage to speak and to politically protest,” says Chattanooga State’s McCamish.

As Gov. Haslam prepares to leave office, he should think about that. He has put a good deal of effort into making community colleges and TCATs affordable to bolster the Drive to 55 numbers. We’ll give him some props for that, even though funding for those is derived from the lottery program, originally designed for four-year college scholarships.

But as McCamish and many others point out, those at the bottom of the totem pole seem to be bearing the burden for the rest of the state. Remember those workers at Fall Creek Falls who lost their jobs this year when the state started work on a new inn there? They weren’t exactly bringing in six-figure salaries.

Haslam, meanwhile, is one of the wealthiest politicians in America with a net worth in the billions. While he’s having his crusted salmon for supper, state employees are likely having fried bologna. What’s left is likely shark bait for JLL.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the state Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.