State employees across Tennessee — including maintenance staff at state universities — could be out of work if Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam pushes forward with his plan to outsource jobs at public institutions.
Activists, politicians and state employees participated in a town hall style phone meeting Monday evening hosted by United Campus Workers, a union composed of staff at universities across the state who oppose Haslam’s plans.
A major concern brought up during the meeting was the amount of transparency Haslam and his team has shown during the planning process, with state Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, being particularly critical of the governor’s methods.
“There isn’t the the transparency that we need,” Kyle said during the meeting. “There has been no official plan submitted to the legislature.”
State Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, echoed Kyle’s statements, saying that he has not received any information from the governor’s office or fellow representatives about this plan.
“I can’t really speak with any authority or with any firm knowledge on what the plan is,” Briggs said. “Almost everything I know about it is what I’ve heard from the press.”
Briggs said, however, that state employees can take consolation from the fact that the plans currently include the options for universities to opt in or out of the program.
Briggs said he recently had a conversation with University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek who said the university has reservations about opting into the program — largely because it would likely force maintenance staff out of their jobs.
“(Officials at UTK) have been very pleased with the quality of the work, with the dedication of the workers,” Briggs said. “(Cheek) mentioned specifically the pride they took in the maintenance staff at the University of Tennessee when they had the heavy snowfall this year.”
Meanwhile, ETSU has not released an official statement on the issue, and university officials are still waiting for more input from the state.
“We’re still continuing to monitor the situation but not anything new has come forward,” said ETSU spokesman Joe Smith.
Several listeners had the opportunity to ask questions during the meeting, and a woman who described herself as a retired ETSU custodian — she only provided her first name, Laura — asked how this decision would impact the savings officials argue will result from this decision, especially in light of the fact that downsized employees would probably be forced into minimum wage jobs.
“It would be an economic impact for the worst,” Kyle said. “These people are making a living wage. If we drop down to just minimum wage without benefits these people are going to have to cobble together two or three jobs … and our state would lose.”
However, Michelle Martin, the communications director for the Strategic Efficiency Real Estate Management initiative — a government program that will help guide the direction of Haslam’s plan — said there are palpable economic benefits that could result from this decision.
“It’s an area that could have a lot of opportunity in terms of savings for citizens,” Martin said. “You have various buildings that are at various ages that are costly to maintain and it’s not necessarily a core competency of the state is to maintain buildings … (the government) is very much more service oriented for the citizens of the state”
SEREM has a portfolio that contains 94 million square feet of real estate, including facilities that are leased out by the state government, and costs Tennessee about $550 million including energy per year.
However, opponents of the plan maintain that the negative repercussions faced by employees — and the resulting economic fallout — far exceed any benefits.
According to figures gathered by members of United Campus Workers, the projected savings resulting from the plan have dropped from $100 million to $60 million, and of the 179 state employees affected by the first round of outsourcing at the state office building, only 28 were hired by a private company that has taken over operations.
“I think we’re hurting Tennessee,” Kyle said. “Those who are making a living wage supporting their families are supporting the community and … we don’t have people in the community that can afford to go to these football games, basketball games, that are trying to spend money and buy Christmas gifts. All that’s going to go away if we outsource.”