University Cuts Hit 'Most Vulnerable' Employees
August 18, 2011

The first day of school will be hard for Beatriz Roman.

Roman worked at Arizona State University for 11 years, and in that time she became an expert on matters that most people pay little attention to.

She waxed the floors and dusted the insides of five buildings. She even knew exactly how much toilet paper each building needed. Eight rolls, for every floor. Then, at the very end of last school year, ASU administrators delivered bad news.

"Everybody lose their job," Roman recalls one administrator explaining. "Everybody’s working only two more weeks."

After years of transitioning to private contractors, the university laid off its remaining custodial staff that day. Roman's $11.35-an-hour job was gone. All 191 people were offered employment with the private companies that would take over ASU’s cleaning duties. The move saved ASU $2.5 million.

But it wasn't such a good deal for the custodians.

Roman is a widow and the mother of a teenager. But she turned down the offer. In fact, an ASU spokesman says only three people took the job with the private companies.

Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
The ASU community rallied behind Beatriz Roman after she lost her custodial job in May.

Custodians say the pay and vacation days were less. Health insurance premiums were more expensive. Plus, there were no state retirement benefits. If Roman accepted the work, she’d lose her university severance package.

"After this, I’m depressed. I’m very depressed," Roman says.

Her severance pays about $1,100 a month, the same as her previous salary after taxes. It runs out in November.

"I need find job soon, " she says.

Returning to a Different Campus

Classes begin Thursday at ASU, the nation's largest public university by enrollment. As more than 70,000 return to campus, they are coming back to a very different place.

Since 2008, the university has endured $190 million in state budget cuts. At the same time, student enrollment has soared 15 percent.

"That's put us in a squeeze," says ASU chief financial officer Morgan Olsen.

Since the financial crisis began, ASU has laid off about 1,300 people, and mandated unpaid work furloughs.

"It’s just implicit that you’ll have difficult decisions to make, and you can’t continue to do everything you’ve always done in the way that you’ve previously done it," Olsen says.

Olsen says ASU will likely avoid further job cuts this school year because of the permanent reductions it made at the end of last school year.

"State revenues are up," he says. "So we’re hopeful that offers more stability."

The Community's Most Vulnerable

The custodian layoffs struck some university departments as unjust.

"People suddenly realize there is a lack of power," says Anthropology graduate student Rhian Stotts, who helped organize a letter-writing campaign to support Roman and the other custodians.

Thirty-one professors from her school, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, wrote to the president’s office. The letter asked the university to immediately suspend the layoffs.

"We believe it is not in ASU's interest to take unilateral action that is so damaging for our most economically vulnerable employees," the letter said. "Many custodians currently have annual salaries that other employees enjoy over merely one or two pay periods."

Archeology Professor Ben Nelson was among those who signed the letter.

"If we want to think of the university as a microcosm of society or the way you’d like society to be, then this doesn’t seem to fit the picture," he says.

Ultimately, the effort to save the jobs failed.

But Beatriz Roman left ASU with a pile of letters wishing her well, and an extra $5,000 raised by professors and students. She’ll use the money to catch up on several months of overdue mortgage payments.

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"Beautiful people," she says. "I love these persons a lot."

And that’s why the first day of school will be painful. It's hard to drive by the campus, she says. Its buildings remind her of the people inside.