McSurely & Turner clients Ben “Pop” Degraffenreid and Walt Morrow in the media fighting to keep their homes
BY BETH VELLIQUETTE
CHAPEL HILL – Ben “Pop” Degraffenreid, once known as the tallest man in Chapel Hill, decided to fight back.
Degraffenreid, 88, is a bit stooped over now and uses a cane, but it appears that a billion-dollar corporation in New York wants him out of the apartment he’s rented for 30 years, and the fight he’s taking on to stay seems to have made him stand a little taller again.
Degraffenreid lives at 603-B Bynum St. in a two-story house located off the beaten path in the Northside neighborhood of Chapel Hill.
He rents half of the duplex and lives there with his son, Jeffery, who acts as his caretaker.
Now, he’s facing eviction after the building went into foreclosure and a company called Fort 2011-1 Reo LLC bought it in August. Fort 2011-1 Reo LLC filed a complaint against him in Orange County small claims court, trying to eject him from the two-bedroom, one-bath apartment.
Degraffenreid and his neighbor, Walt Morrow, 69, who lived in the other half of the duplex, each received letters in August addressed to anyone living at that address advising them that the building had been sold in a foreclosure sale and they had 10 days to move out, said Clay Turner, one of Degraffenreid’s attorneys.
It also stated that if they had leases, they might have other options, Turner said.
Then a man on a motorcycle came by the duplex and started taking photographs, and he told Morrow that he needed to get out, Turner said. Morrow cleared out his place and moved to the Estes Park Apartments.
“These first letters were designed to scare them out, and it scared Walt out, but it didn’t scare Pop out,” Turner said.
Degraffenreid has a lease that doesn’t expire until March 2014, according to Al McSurely, who also represents Degraffenreid.
Degraffenreid received a second letter stating that he was paying rent that was below the market value of the property and that his lease could be terminated, Turner said.
The letter did not state the rent was being increased or instruct him where to pay his rent, Turner said.
“The goal here is to get Pop and Walt out of the house so the property can be sold,” Turner said.
Degraffenreid, who worked at North Hampton Plaza in Chapel Hill as a maintenance man for 40 years, then received a Magistrate Summons from Orange County stating that a small claim action had been commenced against him. It ordered him to appear in court on Tuesday at 11 a.m.
The “Complaint in Summary Ejectment” states “The defendant failed to pay the rent due on the above date and the plaintiff made demand for the rent and waited the 10-day grace period before filing the complaint.”
Handwritten beside that statement was: “Rent below fair market value.”
The rent listed on the complaint is $550 a month, which is the amount that Degraffenreid said he has been paying monthly.
The complaint was filed by John P. Fetner, an attorney for Rogers Townsend & Thomas in Charlotte. Michael Spicer, another member of that law firm, returned a call to The Chapel Hill Herald and said it was the policy of the law firm not to comment and to refer all calls to their client, which he identified as TFLG, a Law Corp.
TFLG, a Law Corporation, is a law firm in Davis, Calif., that specializes in, among other things, post-foreclosure evictions. That law firm also declined to comment.
After Degraffenreid received the notice to appear in court, he told some of his family members about it, and as it happens, some of his family members have been involved in civil rights activities in Chapel Hill for decades.
They contacted Chapel Hill civil rights attorney McSurely and his partner, Turner, and they decided to help Degraffenreid fight the eviction.
Turner traced Fort 2011-1 REO LLC, a company that is registered in several states but not North Carolina, to its principal address at 1345 Avenue of the Americas 46th Floor, New York, N.Y., which is the address of Fortress Investment Group, LLC, a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange with $47.8 billion in assets.
In Orange County records, the new owner of the house is listed as Fort 2011 1 Reo LLC, but the address listed in those records is the address of AMS Servicing, a company near Buffalo, N.Y., that services loans and accepts payments.
The different names and addresses are an attempt by the company to confuse and hide its identity and protect itself from liability, Turner said.
Degraffenreid, who has lived in Chapel Hill all his life, said he’s happy at his place and doesn’t want to leave. He knows all his neighbors and feels comfortable there.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
The Northside neighborhood has traditionally been a working-class, African-American neighborhood, but its location just north of West Rosemary Street makes it a desirable location for student housing because it’s close to the UNC campus. Some of the houses have already been bought and renovated and are being rented to UNC students, but residents and activists have been fighting to maintain Northside’s heritage as an affordable African-American neighborhood.
Turner said that an email he received from Fetner said that Degraffenreid is paying only 57.7 percent to 60.8 percent of the fair market value for his apartment.
On Tuesday, Degraffenreid was ordered to appear in small claims court in Hillsborough to answer the summons, but on Monday evening, McSurely said his office received an email from Fetner saying he wouldn’t be there because his witness wasn’t available.
Degraffenreid, along with McSurely and Turner, and about 10 relatives and supporters, did show up for the hearing, and McSurely asked the magistrate to dismiss the complaint, and she did.
“We’re going to see whether they appeal it,” McSurely said. “They have 10 days to appeal it.”
Read more: The Herald-Sun – ‘Pop’ fighting to stay in his apartment
Northside resident fights eviction notice in a civil court hearing
By Katie Reilly | The Daily Tar Heel
In August, 80-year-old Ben Degraffenreid found a notice on his mailbox informing him that his lease had been terminated and he had 10 days to leave his Northside home.
Degraffenreid — a Chapel Hill native known as Pop to friends and family — has rented one side of the 603 Bynum St. duplex for 33 years.
But when the property was foreclosed and bought by a new owner in June, Degraffenreid found himself facing the threat of eviction.
“If I got to go, I got to go,” he said.
Longtime residents of Northside, a historically black and low income neighborhood, have recently faced affordability issues as developments and students move into the area.
While Degraffenreid doesn’t know where he would live if evicted, he said he is most concerned about being able to get to his doctor’s appointments.
“To tell the truth, most of the time, I’m worried about where I’m going to get the bus,” he said.
He currently lives with his son, Jeffery, who grew up in the home.
“The property was owned by local investment owners, who evidently bought at the wrong time and ended up getting foreclosed on,” said Clay Turner, an attorney at McSurely and Turner PLLC, who is representing Degraffenreid.
FORT 2011-1 REO LLC purchased the foreclosed house in June.
In September, the corporation sued Degraffenreid with a summary ejectment action, Turner said.
“They tried to use North Carolina’s legal process to kick these folks out of their home without any legal basis for doing so,” he said.
The Sept. 24 letter stated that Degraffenreid’s rent was below fair market rent.
“That’s factually untrue, and it’s also not legally very significant,” Turner said.
The lawsuit was dismissed at a hearing Tuesday.
The plaintiff, who is being represented by John Fetner, an attorney at Rogers Townsend and Thomas PC, did not appear in court because a witness would be unable to attend.
Fetner could not be reached for comment.
The plaintiff now has 10 days to appeal the case to a district court.
About 25 community members appeared at the hearing in support of Degraffenreid.
“Because Pop has been here for so long and he’s such a respected member of the community, people are that much more outraged that he would face eviction,” said Aisha Forte, a legal fellow at McSurely and Turner.
Hudson Vaughan, associate director for the Jackson Center, attended the hearing in support of Degraffenreid.
“There’s no question as to how unjust this situation is,” he said. “It’s such a stark measure of how — in this case — profit is considered above the human lives it affects.”
He said he sees Degraffenreid’s situation as part of systemic issues of gentrification and a general lack of affordable housing.
“It’s connected to what the trends are in Chapel Hill and why we’ve got so much work cut out for us in the community,” he said.
Keith Edwards, a former Chapel Hill police officer and a Northside resident, agreed.
“This is happening all over town,” she said. “This is just one person who said, ‘No, no more.’”
After Chapel Hill police detain Charles Brown, a call for oversight
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong guy
by Joe Schwartz
He wasn’t jimmying any locks or ramming through any doors, and he didn’t have any suspicious luggage. Charles Brown was just walking home, being black on Rosemary Street on a Monday night in June when Chapel Hill police mistook him for the wrong man, handcuffed him and detained him for an hour.
Brown has cut hair in Chapel Hill for seven years, and in May he bought his own shop, Precise Cutz & Styles, which is tacked onto the back of the Bank of America Building on Rosemary Street. On that summer night, he worked late fixing his barber chairs, which wouldn’t lock into place, closed shop around 11:30 p.m. and headed west on Rosemary to his then-fiancée’s home in Carrboro. He made it a few blocks, when in front of Breadman’s he was confronted by officers looking for “Mr. Fearrington.”
“I want to know if they really were looking for ‘Mr. Fearrington.’ I don’t think so,” Brown said in his barber shop Monday, between giving customers a close cut and a mohawk. “I think they were just looking to harass me, and have something come out of harassing me, drugs or something.”
Brown, 36, later learned from Chapel Hill Police Chief Brian Curran, who apologized in person and provided a CD recording of radio traffic from the stop, that officers were looking for Cumun Fearrington, a man 20 pounds heavier, 2 inches taller and 11 years younger. Brown held up a picture of Fearrington in his shop, pointing out that the wanted man’s eyebrows are much thicker and his skin darker than Brown’s.
Curran told the Indy that Fearrington was wanted out of Carrboro for “failure to appear for something” and that he wasn’t sure if Fearrington had been apprehended. Carrboro police records show that Fearrington was issued a trespass warning in April but was not wanted by the department. The Orange County Clerk’s office has documents showing that Fearrington appeared in court June 8 on a charge of possession with intent to manufacture, sell and distribute marijuana. He lives on Sunset Drive in Chapel Hill, a half mile from where Brown was stopped June 1.
Brown’s lawyer, Al McSurely, a well-known civil rights attorney who helped re-establish a Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, said officers didn’t show his client respect and violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they ran his name through a criminal records database—after confirming Brown wasn’t Cumun Fearrington.
“You can’t stop somebody because they fit the description of someone else—even if he didn’t—and say, ‘As long as I’ve got him [I'll run him through the database],’” McSurely said. “He should have been freed immediately.”
Now McSurely and other local NAACP leaders are pointing to Brown’s case as evidence that the town needs a civilian review board for the Chapel Hill police—and as an example of the lack of racial equality.
Michelle Cotton Laws, president of the local NAACP chapter, referenced Brown’s case Friday at a rally honoring area civil rights leaders in a rousing, often damning speech in front of the U.S. Post Office on Franklin Street.
“We’re going to keep on fighting and standing for peace and justice until black men don’t have to be afraid to leave their businesses around the corner or places of work at night and fear that they will be harassed or unjustly interrogated or apprehended by police officers who unabashedly and unashamedly abuse and misuse their power,” she said, applause echoing as her voice rose and fell melodically.
She said in an interview later that Brown’s record is “impeccable,” adding that he’s one of only a few black downtown business owners.
Laws is calling for a public apology from Curran and doesn’t want the chief to “protect bad apples.”
“If there was such a thing as a perfect civil rights case to deal with police harassment, I think this case is it,” she said. “I think that most people, if they are honest, even law enforcement, will say this was a misuse of police authority.”
In August, Laws sent a letter to Curran, Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil and the mayor and town council asking for a meeting to address the issues leading to Brown’s detainment. The town council is on summer break and won’t meet until Sept. 14.
Curran said he’s assigned Capt. Jeff Clark to pursue an internal investigation. There’s no deadline for its completion.
“I know that there are those that are making public statements about this particular case, but we cannot,” Curran said. “I’d urge the public not to rush to judgment.”
Brown said he plans to speak with Clark later this week.
“I just want some justice to come out of it so it won’t happen to anyone else,” he said. “It’s not about black, it doesn’t matter who they stop. Wrong is wrong.”
McSurely said Brown has a strong case, but added he would forgo a lawsuit in favor of the town’s agreement to establish a civilian review board.
“If there was a civilian police review board, they could take up not only this specific cause but the policy angle,” he said, adding that he regularly hears racial profiling claims along Rosemary Street and in the historically black Northside neighborhood.
“There needs to be a much better on-the-ground getting-to-know-you kind of police work. Nobody walks in the black community. They should’ve known that Mr. Brown had bought that barbershop and was working late at night. If you’d had cops on the beat, they would have known that.”
McSurely was one of a handful of local activists who this summer called for a civilian review board. To establish the board, the town would need approval from the N.C. General Assembly, because private personnel records would become public.
Durham has a civilian review board; Raleigh does not.
Curran has publicly opposed such a board, saying that a proper review process is in place.
“It sends a really horrible message to rank-and-file officers here, that we don’t trust them,” Curran said.
Christian Johnson stopped by Brown’s shop Monday for his regular trim. “He’s been cutting my hair since I’ve been down here. He’s a fair dude, hardworking man like myself,” he said. “You know what they say, ‘No disrespect, all black men look alike.’”
Johnson moved to Chapel Hill from Washington, D.C., six months ago, and said he already has reasons not to trust local police. Johnson said he was pulled over by Chapel Hill police in June because his car didn’t have an inspection sticker. Police hauled him to Hillsborough, where the Orange County Jail is, for fingerprinting when he matched the description of a breaking-and-entering suspect. He was released hours later.
Curran contends that it’s not only black people who allege discrimination. “It is not unusual on a traffic stop for people to say, ‘You only stopped me because I’m … and then just fill in the blank,” he said. “The fraternity guys think we hate them too.”
McSurely said the fraternity members are treated with more respect than the black community. However, a friendly get-together over beers, á la the Henry Louis Gates case, is not going to solve the problem, McSurely said.
“Some people have said, ‘Why don’t you invite the cop and Charles and have Michelle and give them a beer and take a picture of it,” McSurely said. “I don’t think that’s really going to change the policy of the police department.”
McSurely & Turner Partner Clay Turner was quoted in a Campus Blueprint article on proposed Senate Bill 575, which would remove approximately 22k state employees from the protections of the State Personnel Act.
BY: SARAH BUFKIN
After four months searching for a stable job, Amanda Hulon found a position with the UNC housekeeping department. But after only four shifts cleaning UNC buildings, her supervisor made her an offer—have sex with me, and things will go a lot easier for you here at work. Say anything, and I’ll make your life hell. Dependent on her salary, Hulon suffered through weeks of sexual harassment and abuse, filing grievances with the Facilities Department that brought no relief. Fed up, she filed a law suit against her supervisor and the University in August 2011.
But Hulon is not alone. A recent report compiled by the PRM Consulting firm on UNC-Chapel Hill’s housekeeping department found that employees “had witnesses or were the target of what they felt were inappropriate behaviors, including being touched, pushed, fondled, and spoke to in a sexually explicit manner.”
The report caps off a year rampant with controversy for the university facilities department. In September, UNC fired former director of housekeeping Bill Burston after employees filed numerous complaints against him for sexual harassment. Only three months later, assistant director Tanya Sell was forced out as well, following a series of complaints and widespread protest from the housekeepers.
But in Hulon’s case—as in many others—the proper University channels could not address the problems its housekeepers struggle with day in and day out.
And if a proposed initiative is pushed through the NC General Assembly this spring, the University of North Carolina system will eliminate the last defense of state oversight by removing around 15,400 employees from the protections of the State Personnel Act.
“From wages to benefits to health care to the grievance process [to] raises—basically everything that really decides the conditions for university employees would be under the authority of the Board of Governors,” junior and Student Action with Workers co-chair Zaina Alsous said.
A Grab for Greater System-wide Flexibility and Efficiency
The measure, which state Sen. Richard Stevens (R-Raleigh) first introduced last April in Senate Bill 575, would streamline the University’s personnel systems by putting the current SPA employees, who include housekeepers, facilities staff, police officers and office support, under the same employee system as professors, research assistants, upper-level management, and the senior academic officials.
“The University is aggressively pursuing and made clear that they want to see it passed in this legislature,” said Ardis Watkins, the director for legislative affairs at SEANC. On the University System’s 2012-2013 legislative agenda, the measure is one of five initiatives listed under ‘Personnel Efficiencies.’
Although SB 575, which included the measures, has expired and can no longer be considered in this legislative session, Sen. Stevens told Campus BluePrint that he has not ruled out introducing the proposal yet again by including it in this year’s budget. Stevens acted as one of the two original sponsors of SB 575 and currently chairs the Appropriations Committee, which gives him quite a bit of power.
Stevens holds, as does the Office of UNC System President Tom Ross, that the removal of university system employees from the SPA gives the universities more flexibility in dealing with their employees without taking away employee protections.
In order to guarantee that employees won’t lose rights without state supervision, the Board of Governors discussed in February a set of guiding principles that would inform its new personnel system, if allowed by the state.
“I have offered to the employees group and to President Ross that if it would help clarify things, I’ll put those [guiding principles] in the statute saying that in adopting personnel rules the University shall follow the following principles,” Stevens said. “They’re good solid sound personnel procedures that also provide protections for employees…If the University is not compliant with the statute, then they’re not in compliance with the law.”
But the guiding principles are little more than vague promises for the members of the Coalition for Workplace Democracy—a statewide coalition of student groups, labor unions, and concerned associations such as the North Carolina Conference of the American Association of University Professors mobilizing against the removal of the SPA protections.
They aren’t binding, Alsous says. And even if they are written into the statute, the current draft of the principles offers little more than assurances without offering any concrete details or providing for an enforcement mechanism outside of the Board of Governors, according to Nick Wood, a labor organizer with the national coalition, Jobs with Justice.
For SEANC, the most important flaw in the guiding principles is the University system’s refusal to include a property-rights guarantee, which would ensure that none of the employees would become at-will or able to be fired for any reason at any time. As the principles currently stand, employees would be phased into at-will positions once the new personnel system was up and running.
“Upon implementation of the unified system, employees previously identified as ‘SPA’ will not be required to become ‘at will’ in their current jobs,” the document on the University system website states. “Employees may choose to apply for and accept transfers or promotions to ‘at will’ positions.”
According to Chelsea Philips, a SEANC organizer working in western North Carolina, SEANC lobbyists have met with the Board of Governors several times about adding a provision preventing at-will employment, yet have consistently been told no. If they aren’t planning on turning employees into at-will employees, Philips asked, then why won’t they agree to put that in the law?
Projected and Potential Consequences of Removing SPA Protections
Without the threat of state oversight or any binding legal contract, employees could find themselves at the whim of a future, more conservative Board of Governors.
“They’re going to make all these promises, but after there are no legal conditions,” Alsous said. “These words and these promises can change at any time, and no one will know the difference. And on top of that, the Board of Governors can change at any time. It already isn’t exactly a pro-worker body, but if you can imagine it even more conservative—which is totally possible in a changing political landscape—the state of workers would be completely up in the air.”
Without the SPA provisions, Watkins says, university employees essentially become at-will employees, which means that they can be fired at any time without a justifiable cause. Senior Laurel Ashton, who serves as the second co-chair of SAW and who completed an honors thesis on the state of housekeepers’ rights at UNC, thinks the University system won’t make any dramatic changes to the housekeepers’ personnel system—at least not at first.
“What’s important about [this SPA measure] is that it can happen,” Ashton said. “When they need to make the changes, that’s when they’ll do it.”
But Ashton does warn that removing the housekeepers and other low-income employees from the SPA will have immediate consequences on both morale and their ability to ask for help.
“The fear is already so heightened,” Ashton said. “It’s so engrained in the workers’ everyday experiences on the job, and they’re not at-will employees. There is a process that has to be taken to eventually terminate an employee, and that has been the reason that so many housekeeper organizers are still around because they have these protections. And if you’re at-will, then you don’t. You can be fired for any reason.”
Removing the SPA protections would hold widespread implications, from health-care benefits to the guaranteed grievance process to job security to a set wages.
“Under the State Personnel Act, wages are codified and organized so if you work for a certain amount of time, you get x raise,” Alsous said. “But if this only were under the auspice of the Board of Governors, wages could totally fluctuate dependent on personal favoritism or there could no raises. There is no oversight. There is no one to hold the University accountable.”
Case Study: A Grievance Process Gone Wrong
In 1998, the Board of Governors pushed a similar measure to SB 575 and removed hospital employees statewide from the SPA by creating UNC Healthcare as a separate entity, complete with its own personnel system. University officials have cited the success of UNC Healthcare in making their bid to remove the rest of its employees from SPA, but those who work with hospital employees in the Chapel Hill area say there are serious reasons for concern.
“The reason things have been fairly quiet is because it is impossible to file grievances,” said Clay Turner, an attorney at the firm, McSurley and Turner, which specializes in civil rights litigation in the Chapel Hill area.
Although both the Healthcare system and the SPA provide grievance processes for their workers, the ease of access, quality of resources, and structure of the two systems differ widely—and offer employees widely different chances for relief.
In the case of the SPA, the grievance form is several pages long and provides a list of various grievances that employees can check, thereby providing the workers with a much better chance of fully explaining their claim. The SPA website includes links to multi-paged documents detailing all of an employee’s rights, the ins and outs of the grievance process, and guidelines for how to navigate all of the technical jargon.
In contrast, the UNC Healthcare system hands out a grievance form that requires the employee to write in his or her answers to three questions: ‘Nature of grievance,’ ‘Brief statement of facts,’ and ‘Relief.’ The procedure itself is discussed in only a few pages. None of these documents are provided on a website but can only be obtained by going in to ask management.
“Someone making $20,000 a year without even a high school education is not going to be able to navigate [this grievance process,]” Turner said.
Turner referenced one Latino housekeeper he had spoken with who had gone to management to file a grievance for workplace discrimination. He brought 12 eyewitnesses along with him, and yet Human Resources told him that he had no basis for a claim and was refused the chance to even fill out a grievance form.
The problems don’t end, however, once a Healthcare employee is fortunate enough to receive a grievance form. Under the SPA system, the employees must go through two stages of hearings internally before they are able to take their claim to a court—where their claim is overheard by a neutral, administratively-experienced judge, where they have due process rights, where attorneys can cross examine witnesses and present testimony.
In the Healthcare system, on the other hand, that evidentiary hearing on the claim takes place internally before the Board of Governors. In that hearing environment, says Turners, workers are often times denied due process rights, such as cross examination, the presentation of witnesses, and an unbiased, impartial adjudicator. By the time the grievance makes it out of the UNC Healthcare System at the final appeal, an outside body like the Superior Court can only review the record compiled in the skewed hearing. At that time, the employee cannot introduce any new evidence to back up his or her claim.
“[Employees have] a hugely better winning percentage in front of a judge,” Turner said.
Without the SPA protections, university employees won’t see a judge until the final stage, at which point most of their fate has already been decided by “a kangaroo court,” according to Turner.
Bolstering Public Awareness
But even though such a move could have potentially huge consequences for the housekeeping staff, the University has not made much of an effort to publicize it among employees. Odessa Davis, who has worked as a housekeeper at UNC for close to 20 years, has found it difficult to get information out of the university.
“They don’t tell us,” Davis said. “We have to find out in bits and pieces. But we know better. They tell us that it’s benefiting because you’ll get more out of this and more out of that. But we already know [better].”
SEANC’s more than 55,000 public employees voted to make opposition to the SPA repeal the union’s third highest priority for this legislative session. And much of the UNC housekeeping staff is also aware of the measure and has expressed their opposition. The newly-constituted Employee Forum recently approved a resolution criticizing the switch to a single personnel system.
Davis is one of the housekeepers taking the lead in raising awareness on campus about this issue.
“If we get that bill, we won’t have no say-so,” Davis said. “They can just fire us just like that. With no excuse. So I think it’s very important that they know as much as they can about that bill.”
Mobilizing against the measure certainly presents an uphill battle. The low-income university employees have traditionally featured as a marginalized and easily trampled group in the power schemata of North Carolina politics, and the Board of Governors is pushing for Sen. Stevens to introduce this initiative again this session.
“The Board of Governors has so much power over those positions, and we rarely talk about them,” Ashton said. “That’s just not even a part of our rhetoric before this. We need to be looking at the Board of Governors. It’s not about [particular] people, it’s about the social position that they’re holding and that they are under the thumb of the Board of Governors.”
The Struggle for Labor Rights in Context
But this latest attempt to void the SPA protections for university system employees follows in a long tradition of conflict between organized labor and the public institutions.
“UNC has a long history of using its influence in the state house to negatively affect university workers,” Ashton said. “When [the State Personnel Act] was first being revised, UNC insured that its lowest wage workers would not even be considered SPA. It’s not necessarily surprising because this is a history that we are just kind of continuing, but it’s sad.”
Labor has always found it difficult to organize in the state of North Carolina; the state legislature eliminated collective bargaining rights back in 1959.
“We have the lowest unionization rate in the country [at] 2.9 percent,” Ashton said. “I don’t know when North Carolina hasn’t been at the very bottom. We like to think of ourselves [as the Progressive South], but when it comes to labor, it’s just not the case.”
Looking back over his history working to unionize and represent public-sector workers, Watkins confirms Ashton’s assessment of the topography.
“North Carolina is one of the most hostile states to workers in terms of worker rights,” Watkins said. “We’re trying as an organization to ensure that public workers’ rights are maintained to the best extent that they can.”
In light of all of the recent labor skirmishes in states like Wisconsin and California, Ashton finds it noteworthy that the University system could take away what few tools workers have to stand up for their own rights.
“There’s already so little power in labor in North Carolina,” Ashton said. “Who thinks it’s so necessary to take this last push when other states are rioting because they are taking away the rights that we haven’t had in 50 years? Why are they doing this now?”
Only the Latest Incident for the Housekeepers
This SPA initiative is just the icing on the cake for the UNC housekeepers, who already face a gamut of problems, ranging from harsh chemicals to unfair management to abuse to perceived job insecurity. To work as a one of the least visible and most marginalized positions on a college campus often times makes employees much less likely to feel as if they can stand up for themselves.
The PRM report noted on multiple occasions that the consultants feared many of the housekeepers, particularly those among the non-English speaking population, were not answering their questions honestly out of a fear of retaliation.
“During the interview process, several employees, particularly the Burmese employees, made it clear that they were not going to say anything bad about management, for fear of losing their jobs,” the report concluded.
Yet even with the silencing of some housekeepers, the report paints a troubling picture of what it is like to work as a housekeeper on campus.
As many as 33 percent of the current staff doesn’t agree that “Housekeeping management cares about and is interested in the welfare of its employees.” Furthermore, 34 percent opposed the statement, “I believe Housekeeping management promotes an environment free from harassment, discrimination and intimidation.”
The list of perceived unfairness and mistreatment goes on and on.
“The ombudsmen have heard all of this,” Alsous said. “Chancellor Thorpe has heard all of this….When Human Resources is receiving grievances—grievance upon grievance upon grievance that this is going on—[and yet nothing happens,] you really start to question who is supposed to be taking responsibility here.”
Since PRM Consulting released its report to the University and to the public last October, Chancellor Thorpe promised to develop and implement “an action plan that incorporates many of PRM’s ideas.” But since September, the housekeepers have seen only a few superficial changes go into effect, according to Davis.
“The only thing that I’ve seen change is that they got rid of some of the bad managers,” Davis said, “but we’ve still got some. And that’s about it.”
For Ashton, the problems plaguing the housekeeping department go much deeper than just the individual managers.
“One woman [I spoke with] had a really interesting perspective on it: we still haven’t cut off the head of the snake,” Ashton said. “The PRM report does a lot of things, but you can tell that they aren’t taking it where they need to take it. And I think there’s a reason. They were hired by the university. They’re not going to implicate the administration in the problems of the housekeeping department…Managers are the pawns of those above them.”
And the power dynamic between the housekeeping staff and the University administration makes the possibility of real change all the more elusive.
“Let’s just call it the elephant in the room,” Alsous said. “The majority of housekeepers are minority women. It’s just a historically-marginalize and silenced community…On top of that, they are minority women from impoverished communities who are not paid a living wage.”
Taking Steps Forward
Both SAW members agree on a couple of actionable steps that the University should be taking to better conditions for its workers—namely, providing adequate translation services for non-English speakers and eliminating a stifling team-cleaning policy.
The PRM report highlighted the clear need for more translators within the housekeeping department, yet Ashton has found little to no action has been taken thus far.
“Last month at least, we went with a Spanish-speaking housekeeper to Human Resources to translate for her, because they didn’t have a Spanish-speaking translator,” Ashton said. “I mean, Spanish. That’s so much easier that Burmese, Karen. You don’t have [a Spanish] translator yet? When did this report come out? Months and months ago? Why did it need to have a report to happen? The PRM report says that 40 percent of housekeeping is non-English speaking, and you don’t have translators in Human Resources. That is beyond me.”
The housekeepers also complain about the University’s gradual transition away from a zone-cleaning policy, in which each employee is given the liberty to clean a set space regularly, to a restrictive, team-cleaning policy known as OS1.
Housekeeper James Holman, who serves as the Grievance Support Person on both the Employee Forum and within SEANC’s 25th District, wrote a statement on behalf of the housekeepers criticizing the OS1 policy.
“[The team-cleaning process] reduces the UNC housekeeping employee to a less-than-respected cipher in the system, rather than supporting them as intelligent, hard-working and conscientious employees,” Holman wrote. “This team cleaning system specifies the exact quantities of supplies and the exact techniques that should be used to do each individual task during a work day—and the exact number of minutes it should take to do each task. Worker productivity is evaluated based on adherence to the time and supply restrictions that this system specifies.”
Ashton puts it in blunter terms.
“OS1 means that you are given a task,” she said. “So you might clean toilets every day for two weeks, and that’s all you do is clean toilets. And you have two minutes to clean every single toilet and you have a packet of soap this big, and you can only use one packet per toilet…It’s very dehumanizing, the whole process….Who just wants to be cleaning toilets from building to building the entire day?”
Davis also criticizes the rigidity of the new cleaning model, saying that the University forces them to use certain chemicals on certain tasks, even if the employee has a harsh reaction to them. As asthmatic, she struggles with the cleaning fluid used on kitchen equipment and was promised a mask, but none has yet been forthcoming.
For Holman, the housekeepers aren’t asking for much—simply safe and respectful conditions in which to do their jobs.
“There are approximately 400 housekeeping employees who have the expectation of being treated respectfully and fairly, of working in an environment free from threats, intimidation and harassment, and of being enabled to do their best job for the University,” Holman wrote.
If the NC General Assembly passes this measure to remove the housekeepers and other low-wage employees from the State Personnel Act and all of its safeguards, achieving Holman’s goals will become much more difficult.
For Alsous, this is the issue that will define her college career.
“Just the fact that their jobs and their livelihoods are at risk for asking for basic treatment and basic conditions,” she said, “it just blows you away…This culture of disrespect, this culture of marginalization is so pervasive.
“For me, the reason why I got involved is not even the unfairness of wages and the unfairness of business practices. To me, it was as a student, this is the narrative that is being perpetuated about me. Workers are being told that I want this for them. And that’s something that I refuse to accept.”
McSurely & Turner Attorneys in Hendersonville Following “Night of Terror” Inflicted upon the Green Meadows Community by Hendersonville Police
The shooting of a black man in a low-income Hendersonville community by police officers and a School Board decision not to merge Bruce Drysdale and Hendersonville elementaries have attracted the attention of the state NAACP.
The two are examples of “systemic” problems regarding racial inequality in Henderson County, said Al McSurely, communications chair of the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a Chapel Hill attorney with McSurely & Turner.
Anna Blackshaw wrote a cover story on the Sanitation Two for the Independent Weekly. Blackshaw’s story begins
As Clyde Clark tells it, he started to turn his life around in 1998 when he got a job collecting trash for the Town of Chapel Hill. He had grown up in public housing, dropped out of high school in 11th grade and had worked service jobs all over the area. He had mopped floors at McDonald’s, served food in UNC’s Lenoir Hall and bussed tables at Franklin Street bars, but never for very long.
So when he was hired by the Chapel Hill Public Works Department, he knew he had a chance to start over. “Getting that job was like a bright light. It gave me a sense of self-worth to have a good job to go to every day and a consistent check. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me.” For the next 12 years, Clark picked up, hauled and dumped trash for the Town of Chapel Hill.
That job ended last fall when Clark and a co-worker, the Rev. Kerry Bigelow, were fired. Public Works Director Lance Norris says that they were fired for insubordination and threatening behavior toward co-workers and residents. But to Clark and Bigelow, who are African-American, the firings were retaliation for filing race discrimination grievances with town and federal officials, for speaking out on work and safety conditions in the public works department and for joining a union.
The full article can be be viewed here.
The News & Observer ran the following story about McSurely and Turner’s recent victory against the University of North Carolina (view the story on the N&O here).
CHAPEL HILL UNC-Chapel Hill must release documents in its investigation of a housekeeper’s sexual-harassment allegations, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Amanda Hulon, 30, of Carrboro, filed a complaint against the university with the state Office of Administrative Hearings in August. The former housekeeper says she was sexually harassed by her former supervisor, Wade Farrington, and his manager, Bill Burston. Neither works for the university now, according to court testimony.
In her complaint, Hulon says Farrington touched her inappropriately and said he would make her job easier if she would have sex with him. Farrington told Hulon regularly to “keep her mouth shut” about the comments and touching, or he would get her fired, according to her complaint.
At the hearing, Administrative Judge Joe L. Webster ordered the university to release the documents in its investigation to Hulon and her attorney, Al McSurely, within seven days. He also said he anticipates ordering both parties to undergo mediation and participate in a settlement conference.
“I think this case cries out for that,” he said.
UNC-CH has filed a motion to dismiss the case because Hulon did not complete the university’s grievance process before filing a suit, said Katherine Murphy, assistant state attorney general. Therefore, the Office of Administrative Hearings lacks jurisdiction, she said.
According to state law, once a complaint is filed with the university, it has 60 days to respond, Murphy said. The university did respond to Hulon’s complaint and found no evidence of sexual harassment, she said. Hulon then had 30 days to dispute the university’s finding, but she didn’t, Murphy said. She waited five months, then took her complaint to the state.
“The harassment claim is untimely,” Murphy said.
Hulon brought her complaint to the university ombudsman office in 2008. She was then transferred to another section of the housekeeping department, but when the harassment didn’t stop, the university did not adequately respond to her concerns, McSurely said. The university’s unwillingness to release documents reflects a systemic problem and history of discrimination in the housekeeping department, he said.
“We believe this case will begin to expose how the university treats its poorest-paid, predominantly female workforce,” he said.
“Hulon said that she didn’t know how the university’s grievance process worked exactly and that as she tried to file complaints and they were investigated, she didn’t hear back after repeated calls and emails.
“No one would talk to me; no one would address any of the concerns I was having,” she said.
At the hearing, Murphy said the university is not trying to obstruct her right to have her complaints investigated and heard in court.
“I resent the allegation that the university is trying to run and hide and doesn’t care about these things,” Murphy said. “It’s just not true.”
“Murphy cited the release of a report this month detailing housekeeper concerns and problems with past management.
“The university hired PRM Consulting Group, which made 45 recommendations on how to improve management and staff relationships in the housekeeping department, including how to resolve issues of harassment, retaliation, confidentiality and fairness.
On Septemeber 17, McSurely & Turner founder Al McSurely gave the keynote speech at the New Hanover County Democratic Party’s annual Unity Banquet. In his speech, entitled, “This is the First Time I’ve Been to Wilmington,” Mr. McSurely recounted Chief Justice Earl Warren’s reading of the unanimous Brown v. Board opinion in 1954:
Let me paint the picture. Nine Supreme Court Justices . . .nine old white men. . . one a former Ku Klux Klan member . . . one a former Republican Governor . . . walked out from behind the curtains of mendacity that had hidden the cruelties of Jim Crow for 60 years. They sat, all but Chief Justice Earl Warren. He proudly pulled out the decision he had written with the unanimous approval and help of his colleagues. He read it aloud, carefully enunciating every powerful phrase, announcing to the whole world that the NAACP, after 45 years of risking the lives, fortunes and sacred honors of its members and its attorneys, had destroyed the legal basis of Jim Crow. Many in the pews of the Court wept. It is said some of God’s angels wept again, this time with hope that some members of the human race had finally risen to the height of lesser angels. The Chief Justice read the powerful words of the whole decision and, as he came to the conclusion, his voice raised slightly. Some say he caught his breath, and there was a catch in his throat, like a sob, as he said: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The full text of Mr. McSurely’s wide-ranging remarks can be found here.
McSurely & Turner partner Al McSurely Speaks at the New Hanover County Democratic Party’s 2011 Unity Banquet
McSurely & Turner founding partner Al McSurely was the keynote speaker at the New Hanover County Democratic Party’s 2011 Unity Banquet honoring former Representative Sandra Spaulding Hughes for her service. Photos from the speech can be seen here.