Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Article from the Harvard Perspective on Speed-Up and Layoffs in University Financial Services

The piece below was supposed to be an Op Ed for the student newspaper the Harvard Crimson, but it was censored. The liberal magazine the Harvard Perspective then agreed to publish the piece.

Pressure, Panic and Layoffs in University Financial Services

4 Comments 22 October 2012
By Geoff Carens
Pedestrians strolling by Harvard’s impressive buildings might assume that the employees within, especially those fortunate enough to belong to a union, enjoy enviable working conditions. But in one Harvard workplace, University Financial Services (UFS), union members have endured six harrowing months of unrelenting pressure to work faster or risk being laid off. On September 24, UFS managers announced their intention to terminate three employees deemed “not fast enough.” Union members who have young children and elderly dependents face the unemployment line, wondering how they will get by in the months ahead.
In March, Human Resources Officer Michelle Roach told members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) in UFS that their jobs were being “expanded.” Roach wrote, “The next six months will be considered a transition period… your continuation in this role…is contingent upon your work performance and skills development meeting the needs of your expanded role.” Employees were offered no choice; they had to accept this precarious situation in order to keep their jobs. While a few workers received small salary increases, other staff received no compensation for their increased responsibilities and extra work.
After Roach’s announcement, David Casavant, Manager of Accounts Payable Operations, began calculating average rates for invoice processing by union members. Eventually everyone was under pressure to work at or above the average rate at least 75% of the time. Of course, unless all of the workers processed invoices at exactly the same speed, this benchmark is mathematically impossible for an entire group to achieve. Workers understood that if they did not out-perform their colleagues, they could be fired.
This production pressure was accompanied by other changes. For instance, supervisors began attributing mistakes to the current workweek regardless of when the tasks involved were actually performed. One worker told me she was taken to task, many months later, for 12 or 13 so-called mistakes she had supposedly made back in December 2011, when she was still being trained. At the same time, managers suggested to employees that they would lose their jobs if they did not perform flawlessly. Casavant sent the same message to multiple employees: “…Your error rate [of two or fewer mistakes out of hundreds or thousands of data entries per week] is not acceptable…your progress to date in this area puts you at risk of not succeeding during this transition period.” Management told the UFS staff that their jobs could be outsourced, and then implausibly added that this was not a threat.
Despite their insistence on flawless performance, managers ignored repeated requests for relevant training. Instead, workers say they were sent to classes that “had nothing to do with our jobs.” For instance, an African-American employee, whose first language is English, was told to take a pronunciation class meant for workers who grew up speaking another language, and who lack fluency in English. Incredulous but not wanting to give management any excuse to terminate her, she signed up. Her teacher wrote, “When I assessed you there was very little evidence of any problems with your speech…the fact that you spoke so clearly when we met indicates that you have all the skills you need…I don’t think it makes sense for you to attend the Pronunciation class.” Despite these comments, in a meeting on September 17, various managers claimed they had trouble understanding the employee, who told me that she understandably feels “insulted.”
The pressure to work ever faster without mistakes has negatively impacted employees’ health. One worker had a panic attack at work and left in an ambulance. Another had to take a stress-related disability leave. A third employee, skilled and dependable with 24 years of service, attributes her need to resume taking high blood pressure medication to unending exhortations to speed up at work. The medication compelled her to use the restroom more than other workers; fearful that she would be perceived as lagging, she asked to document the reason for her restroom breaks, but was not allowed to do so. Now she too has taken has taken disability leave.
In a meeting that I attended as a union rep on September 24, Casavant and HR Rep Nicole Breen announced their plan to lay off three of the workers in UFS. All three are over 40 and people of color, and two are African-American women. Breen admitted that there was no reason to terminate anyone due to lack of work in the department, acknowledging “a unique situation [in] that you eliminate jobs without the work going away.” On September 25, Casavant emailed staff in the unit to announce that three temporary workers – not entitled to union wages, benefits, or protections – would be starting the next day, replacing the workers who were no longer in the office. Reportedly these temporary employees have already called in sick several times in their first weeks on the job, and staff who remain are overloaded with work without their experienced colleagues to assist them.
All the pressure, threats of layoff, health consequences for the workers, and now job losses appear to have been completely unnecessary. The UFS work group historically met or beat every deadline, and employees in UFS were routinely pulled off their regular jobs to assist other departments. As Massachusetts’ fifth-largest employer and Cambridge’s largest, Harvard helps set regional employment standards. Concerned community members, pro-labor students, and activists in my union are determined to push for justice for those who face the loss of their jobs. We know their treatment threatens a destructive ripple effect far beyond the walls of University Financial Services.
Geoff Carens is a Union Representative in the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. A Library Assistant in Lamont Library, he attends the Harvard Extension School.

Friday, October 19, 2012

10/18 Protest Defending Johany Pilar!

Protesters Gather To Support Pilar

Inspired by Johany Pilar, a worker in Harvard's Mailroom, the Harvard community gathers at the Holyoke Center to protest sexual harassment.
About 65 Harvard employees, students, and community members protested in front of the Holyoke Center early Thursday evening in support of Johany Pilar, a science center mailroom worker who says she was sexually harassed.
For about an hour, protesters listened to several speakers, chanted, and marched in circles. The rally was sponsored by student groups such as Black Harvard Women, Harvard College International Women’s Rights Collective, Harvard Socialists at GSAS, and Harvard Student Labor Action Movement.
“I think that the large number of students who showed up was a testament to the fact that people are angry enough,” Student Labor Action Movement member Kirin Gupta ’16 said. “The protest showed the outrage that Harvard has brought upon itself.”
Pilar, who was present at the protest but did not speak, publicly shared her story for the first time at a Rape Culture Panel hosted by the IWRC last week.
At the panel, Pilar said that a co-worker grabbed her face on two separate occasions last spring and said he wanted to kiss her. Pilar felt uncomfortable and immediately reported the incident to the management, who she said prevented her from attending therapy sessions and threatened her with disciplinary action or termination.
Flyers distributed at the event said that Pilar has filed a complaint with the Massachussetts Commission Against Discrimination.
University spokesperson Kevin Galvin declined to comment on the specific case but said in an emailed statement to the Crimson that the University takes such allegation seriously. The University, he wrote, maintains a “policy of non-retaliation to encourage employees to come forward with complaints so that allegations can be investigated.”
Pilar told The Crimson that the rally demonstrates to others who have been harassed the supportive community surrounding this issue.
“I don’t want to shut my mouth,” Pilar said.
Geoffrey P. Carens, a library assistant and Pilar’s representative in the Harvard Union of Clerical Technical Workers, led many of the protest’s chants and introduced its speakers. He said that the purpose of the event was to raise public awareness about Pilar’s situation and sexual harassment in general.
Protesters said that they want Harvard to respond directly to Pilar’s case and change their policies in handling workers’ grievances.
“We want Harvard to issue a formal apology to Johany and make sure that she never has to work with that man again,” Amanda Haziz-Ginsberg, a recent Divinity School graduate and member of Harvard Socialists at GSAS, said. “Enough is enough. We will not put up with this.”
—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Fereol can be reached at mferreol@college.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at sweinstock@college.harvard.edu.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

10/18/12 Action Supporting HUCTW Member Johany Pilar, Retaliated against for Reporting Sexual Harassment

Defend Johany Pilar! Fight Rape Culture in the Workplace

Since 1998, HUCTW member Johany Pilar has worked in Harvard's Science Center Mail Room. She first reported unwanted advances and physical contact from a co-worker in March of this year. Ever since she complained about sexual harassment, Johany has faced retaliation from managers. She's experienced pressure, unequal treatment compared to co-workers, and threats.

On September 14, Johany received an unfair disciplinary warning threatening her with being fired. Johany has never been warned for anything in all her years at Harvard. She has started a lawsuit with the MA Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).

Please come to an action supporting Johany and all those who stand up against gender discrimination, sexual harassment, & for their right to fair and equal treatment on the job!

Join us Thursday, October 18 at 5 pm, @ Harvard's Holyoke Center, 1350 Mass. Ave., Cambridge! For more information email: JusticeforJohany@gmail.com.

Open Letter to Harvard's Labor Relations Dept. on HUCTW Member Johany Pilar

October 9, 2012
An Open Letter to the Community
Addressing Labor and Employee Relations at Harvard University
We are writing to raise an important issue regarding the treatment of Harvard University Clerical and Technical Workers member Ms. Johany Pilar. We understand that on 3/2/12, 4/4/12 and 4/10/12, Ms. Pilar reported unwanted advances and physical contact from a co-worker. Apparently Ms. Pilar was instructed to train the co-worker even after reporting this harrassment. During the training she experienced more unwelcome physical contact. We understand that on 5/9/12, Ms. Pilar’s supervisor Chris Tolkacz insistently pressured Ms. Johany to cancel a therapy appointment she had set up because of the sexual harassment. Mr. Tolkacz apparently made this demand repeatedly, despite knowing the reason for Ms. Pilar’s appointment. We have learned that this interaction was so upsetting that it caused Ms. Pilar to have a panic attack in the workplace, which she had to leave by ambulance.  Ms. Pilar was subsequently admitted to Mount Auburn Hospital suffering from “severe anxiety.”

We understand that on 5/31/12, Ms. Pilar was denied a reasonable accommodation to her back pain by management. Although her doctor cleared her to return to work, with the sole restriction that she not lift more than ten pounds, management refused to allow her to return to work, using the excuse that it was not possible to monitor the weights of packages in the mailroom. This seems clearly specious, as many of the packages reportedly bear labels recording their weight. Ms. Pilar lost an entire week’s wages due to management’s denying her accommodation. We are informed that on 6/5/12, Betsy Shortell, Manager of University Mail Services, confronted Ms. Pilar in the workplace, repeatedly asked her the same questions, and, despite all of Ms. Pilar’s responses being polite and appropriate, accused Ms. Pilar of ignoring her, and stated, “If in the future I am talking to you and you avoid me, you will have a big, big problem with me.”

We have learned that on 8/28/12, Ms. Pilar visited Urgent Care and was prescribed anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant medication for throat pain and inflammation. On 9/1/12, she awoke to find that her throat pain had worsened and that she was unable to talk, and could barely swallow. She reported a sick day in Harvard’s PeopleSoft system, which she had been using for months to report sick days. On 9/5/12, Ms. Pilar made a request for extra hours and was told by Betsy Shortell, “Before we discuss extra hours, we need to sit down and talk about your unexcused absence Saturday, September 1.” We are informed that Ms. Shortell telephoned Ms. Pilar and stated that if she did not meet with Shortell and HR, she would be fired. On 9/7/12, Ms. Pilar provided management with a doctor’s letter stating that she needed to stay out of work for the next three days because of the condition in her throat. Despite this, on 9/14/12, management issued a written warning which stated she had failed to follow time off request procedures and was required when reporting a sick day “to speak to a management person live.” This written warning skipped over the verbal warning step in the HUCTW disciplinary process, and made no allowances for Ms. Pilar’s abundantly documented throat pain and inflammation. We regard it as another instance of the harassment, threats and unfair treatment that Ms. Pilar has faced since reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. We understand that Ms. Pilar, who has worked at Harvard since 1998, never received any discipline before she reported the unwanted advances and physical contact on the job. Ms. Pilar has filed a lawsuit with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) due to the retaliation she has faced.

Students in support of Johany Pilar have taken notice. We are disturbed by the way Ms. Pilar has been treated in her workplace. We stand in solidarity with a woman who appears to have been denied the right to speak out without repercussions in the face of consistent harassment and discrimination.  When a worker is disciplined as a result of speaking up about sexual harassment, it is not only an injustice to that individual, but also serves to normalize harassment more broadly by silencing victims and emboldening harassers.  A system that does not take sexual harassment seriously ultimately serves to reinforce rape culture, the set of attitudes, norms and practices that allow for sexual violence that persists in our community.

We demand that the University rescind the discipline against Ms. Pilar, provide her with a new supervisor, and give departmental managers the training they need to treat workers who have reported sexual harassment appropriately in the future. We believe that these steps are necessary in maintaining a workplace consistent with the values advanced in Harvard’s Non-Discrimination Policy.

We hope that Ms. Pilar’s story will bring attention to the many ways rape culture affects our community. We pledge to support Ms. Johany Pilar in her struggle to secure fair treatment by our university and urge you to join us to show your solidarity.

Global Health and Aids Coalition
Harvard International Women’s Rights Collective
Harvard John Reed Society
Harvard Student Labor Action Movement
Harvard Socialists
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Boston General Membership Branch
Harvard College Dominican Students' Association
Association of Black Harvard Women
Harvard Queer Students and Allies
Harvard Socialists at GSAS

Harvard Crimson article about HUCTW member Johany Pilar

Mailroom Worker Alleges Harassment

On Wednesday October 10, members of the Harvard community gather to discuss rape culture.
The room fell silent seconds before Science Center mail clerk Johany Pilar spoke at the panel discussion on gender inequality on “rape culture” on Wednesday.
“Maybe you don’t remember me,” she began softly. “But I have been here for a really long time.”
Pilar clutched at her throat, which was hurting, and asked the more than 20 students who had gathered in a tiny Boylston classroom to be patient with her. Though her every word required obvious effort, she wanted to be heard.
“I am here because what happened to me could happen to you tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t want that.
”Late last February, Pilar said, she became the victim of sexual harassment by one of her co-workers in the freshman mailroom. She said her co-worker, “bigger and older” than her, grabbed her face between his thumb and pointer finger and said that he wanted to kiss her.
Pilar said that she felt uncomfortable and immediately told her co-worker not to touch her again. Despite apologizing after the first incident, she said, the man repeated the same behavior again just a few days later.
“He did it again. He grabbed my face,” Pilar said, mimicking the man’s grip on her face with her own hand. “He did it again!”
Pilar said she then contacted a female manager of University Mail Services about the harassment by email. Pilar said that in response, the manager told her to stop hugging people and to try to be nice and work professionally. No action was taken against her co-worker, she said.
In April, Pilar said, the same co-worker grabbed her hand twice. She reported that incident to another mail services supervisor, who said that he would reassign the man so he would no longer come in contact with her, Pilar said.
Overcome by stress due to the harassment, she said, she started seeing a therapist and was admitted to Mount Auburn Hospital after a panic attack in May. She felt that she was being pressured by managers because she had reported the harassment; in September, she said, she received a written message informing her that she could be fired for an unreported absence.
“I’m not going to shut my mouth. I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’m not doing this for me to be in the mailroom working, but for justice.”
Wednesday evening marked the first time that Pilar spoke about her sexual harassment experience in a public forum, and she plans to continue to make her story public. At the panel, hosted by the International Women’s Rights Collective and several other organizations to discuss gender inequality, Pilar asked students for their support. A flyer handed out at the panel said that on Oct. 18, students will gather at the Holyoke Center to support Pilar and “stand up against gender discrimination, sexual harassment, & for their right to fair and equal treatment on the job.”
Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers representative Geoffrey Carens, who is helping Pilar make her story known, was also present at the event.
“Johany has really taken it on the chin for what she has done,” he said. “She has been incredibly, incredibly brave.”
Carens said that he helped Pilar file a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination at the beginning of the month. That complaint will be assigned to an investigator in the state office.
Meanwhile, Pilar is involved in the grievance filing process through HUCTW as well. Bill Jaeger, the director of HUCTW, said privacy rules prevented him from discussing Pilar’s case specifically. But he commented, “We have a union management grievance process that we really believe in, that works extremely well to bring about fair outcomes.”
Pilar, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, said she has previously faced domestic violence. Working at Harvard since 1998, she said she has maintained a spotless disciplinary record.
Students at the event said that they saw Pilar’s story as an isolated incident reflecting harassment that happens frequently among college students as well.“
We don’t really talk about sexual assault even though it’s something that affects our lives. Most of the time, we even engage in ‘victim-blaming’,” said Kate Sim ’14, president of the International Women’s Rights Collective. “This is a mindset that has to be changed. How are we expected to be students here if we don’t even feel safe to speak up?”
—Samuel Y. Weinstock contributed to the reporting of this article.
—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at mferreol@college.harvard.edu.