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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, May 24, 2024

Op-Ed: Tufts' treatment of Facilities workers

Editor's note: During the author’s time on Tufts’ grounds crew in summer 2018, he interviewed members of his immediate team tasked with maintaining the lower campus, as well as ground workers across the campus. This opinion piece includes quotes from sources who wished to remain anonymous for their personal safety.

When prospective students arrive at Tufts, their first interactions with the university are shaped by the campus itself. Either subconsciously or consciously, we all formed our first opinions of Tufts based on the health of its grass, the exactness of its hedges, the vivacity of its flowers. Students who visit a university on cloudy days are nine percent less likely to enroll, according to a 2009 study. The people who maintain these physical elements, the workers of Tufts’ grounds maintenance crew, know how important it is for Tufts to make a good first impression and for students to be wowed by the beauty of the campus. They put care and effort into their work, reflecting on a freshly cut lawn of a blooming flower the way an artist would step back from a finished canvas. Or, at least, they used to.

“We’ve watched this campus deteriorate over the last few years,” a 15-year employee said.  “I used to take pride in my work. Now I’m embarrassed to call myself a grounds guy.” Or, as another employee put it, “I’ve never seen such an unhappy group of guys. Morale is through the ground.”

A common theme emerged: The campus and the workers thrived under the previous administration of John Vik and Jesse Carreiro, who created a work environment of respect and mutual support. But after Vik retired in December 2015 and Carreiro passed away in early 2017, new management arrived at Tufts with a series of changes, abrupt for longtime workers accustomed to a familiar routine.

Shortly after his hiring on Oct. 3, 2016, Ground Maintenance Supervisor Greg Mellett oversaw the transition of five longtime facilities workers from a Monday-Friday routine to a Tuesday-Saturday schedule. This change, well documented in an Oct. 21 Daily article from that same year, upset the lives of the workers, many of whom have families. “I think overall morale is definitely down,” Jack Ng, a driver who was switched to the Tuesday-Saturday schedule, was quoted as saying at the time. Because overtime shifts often fall on Saturdays, the change in schedules purposefully reduced the number of overtime shifts these workers could take, costing them valuable income. “I’m trying to buy a house, get my life started, and now I have to put everything on hold because I don’t know if that money is going to be there anymore,” a worker, who also moved on to the Tuesday-Saturday schedule, said. Further exacerbating tensions, Hill and Mellett hired two new employees, men in their mid 20s, to be in charge of colleagues with decades of experience. These designations also came with an increased salary.

Former Senior Facilities Director Stephen Nasson -- who has since been moved to a position as Housing Management Director -- suggested that these changes were made to save costs for Tufts. “My job is to make sure that we’re operating as efficiently as possible with the resources that I have,” Nasson was quoted as saying at the time. And yet, a number of the practices that I have observed over the summer suggest that the mandates coming from Mellett and Director of Campus Services Gary Hill are costing the school. Hill and Mellett have increased costs by creating a hostile work environment in which employees aren’t motivated to put in their best work. “One hand scratches the other, that’s how it used to be,” a 12-year veteran employee said. Or as another employee put it, “You treat people with respect, you get respect back.” Under the previous administration, this environment was maintained through communication and flexibility. “If I had an emergency at home, all I had to do was talk [to] John Vik and say ‘John I’ve got to go’ and he would understand,” a worker said. This level of compassion and flexibility would be paid back during the busiest periods of the year -- shoveling snow in the winters or setting up for commencement -- when workers are called upon to work long, arduous days with hours of overtime. In my time on the crew, I have witnessed dozens of overtime calls, a process where Mellett offers overtime shifts to each employee. Almost uniformly, the response is “no.” Faced with this reality, workers say that Mellett has turned to a clause in the university’s contract with Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ -- the union that represents facilities workers -- that allows him to force workers into overtime shifts.

One employee was compelled into working 108 hours of overtime last year under Mellett. Eight of these overtime hours came during the worst possible time for the employee. When his mom was diagnosed with cancer, the employee filed for and was granted up to 480 hours of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law that allows employees up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss. Against his protests, the employee was forced to leave his mother in hospice care on Jan. 8, 2017 to work an overtime shift. “Because of the hostile environment I was in, I felt that saying no to work on the 8th was not a choice I had without [repercussions],” he said. Despite his compliance, he received a letter on Jan. 27, 2017 from Nasson which reminded him of the “severity” of missing work, which he did not do. The letter stated that “you cannot pick and choose the times of an emergency event,” and threatened future citations. His mother passed away a week later.

The crew told me that they could not remember an instance of Hill or Mellett using the words “please” or “thank you,” despite placing enormous demand on their employees. My experience on the crew validated this perception. “There are what I call the three c’s of a healthy work environment,” the 12-year employee said. “Communication, cooperation and camaraderie. Gary Hill and Greg Mellett have a different three c’s: cut benefits, cut corners and cut grass.” Or as another employee put it, “It’s simple. Treat people with respect and dignity.” Nasson, Hill and Mellett have created an environment in which workers are dehumanized, forced to work under a regime rather than working alongside a partnership. “You want to take pride in your work but you don’t want to work for a guy like that,” one of the workers said. After just two years at Tufts, that worker has since moved on to a different position. By a worker’s estimate, five grounds and labor shop employees have resigned or retired early this year because of the work environment they faced under Mellett and Hill.

Unfortunately, the issues highlighted in this piece are not unique to the grounds maintenance department. Employees across the school are saying a lack of respect and an unhealthy work environment, a cultural and institutional failure that upper administrators are, at best, willfully ignorant of and, at worst, actively promoting. In an April 2018 op-ed published in the Daily, an anonymous Facilities Services employee wrote that “Tufts Management — who once embraced the community, students, and the environment — has now drastically changed and has followed suit with the rest of corporate America, only caring about the bottom line and not students, staff and its workers’ needs.”

My experiences as a student, an alumnus and an employee have shown me a side of Tufts that is rarely seen. Across the university, employees face a working environment in which they are unhappy. This affects the work produced by employees and staffers. It is a reputation that reaches prospective employees and prevents Tufts from hiring the best educators and workers. During my time as the chair of the Administration and Policy Committee on the Tufts Community Union Senate, I found that this environment is filtering through to the experiences of students, who told me that they faced an unresponsive, non-transparent or uncaring administrator on the opposite ends of the concerns. If it has not already, this reputation will begin to affect the way the broader public and academic world perceives Tufts.

I loved my time on the Tufts grounds crew. Though they are chronically underappreciated and overlooked, these people come to work every day, battling fatigue and brutal conditions. They do so not because of the pay, because it isn’t that great. They do it because they love Tufts, and they love the students, even the ones who never acknowledge their work. After I have moved on to what society deems “real work,” they will still be here, doing the real work. For all that they do for Tufts, they deserve better.