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Housekeepers fight for weekends 

click to enlarge Click for larger image • UNC housekeeper Pam Breeden on the job in Spencer Hall in Chapel Hill. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Save for the footsteps of a few bleary-eyed students shuffling through the hallways, Spencer Hall is a quiet place this morning. It's Monday, and the workload of the housekeepers assigned to clean Spencer depends greatly on how well the students have kept up the building's various common areas during the weekend break.

Pam Breeden and her co-workers head to the first floor utility closet and don plastic surgical gloves before setting out to the bathrooms.

Breeden, 52, is helping train a new recruit. The two stand in front of the twin sinks as Breeden explains the intricacies of giving the bathroom what Larry Hicks, the director of the department of housing and residential education, refers to as the "wow factor"—a room so spotless that it helps attract and retain students in campus housing.

It's the second time in as many weeks that Breeden has played the role of educator. The first came late last week at a rally staged in the crowded heart of UNC's Chapel Hill campus.

Breeden, along with a dozen or so of her fellow housekeepers and a group of banner-bearing student activists, gathered in the central courtyard known as the Pit to protest a new university policy requiring housekeepers to work weekends. Bullhorn in hand, Breeden explained the housekeeper's opposition.

"Most of us have weekend jobs," she said. "And there are other people who have trouble working Saturdays because they don't have cars. We need the university to do the right thing here."

This isn't the first issue that's come between UNC officials and the residence hall housekeepers. Issues arising from budget cuts and the construction of additional campus housing have in recent years caused many a flare-up between the two.

In 1996, the university settled a million-dollar lawsuit centered on complaints of inadequate wages and poor working conditions. In 2003, the two sides battled over issues emanating from what housekeepers said was an unfair attendance policy. Later that year, the university announced layoffs of nearly 30 housing department employees, citing budget concerns.

The latest hostilities have been brewing since the university announced the new policy last year. The university wants the campus dorms cleaned at least once over the course of each weekend. Saying it needed to trim overtime costs, the university expanded the residence hall housekeepers' work week to seven days, forcing some to stagger their schedules. In response, the housekeepers complained that the change interfered with their weekend employment, and also of being overworked. The two sides later formed a committee which, despite weeks of meetings, has failed to reach a compromise.

Breeden says that housekeepers' demands are fairly straightforward.

"We want our weekends," she says, securing a mop from the hallway closet. "A lot of people that want us to work on the weekends are going to be spending the weekends with their family. Why should we get forced to spend that time away from ours?"

That issue was the main contention at the Sept. 18 protest in the Pit, which was staged just as the university was beginning its observance of International Housekeepers Week. The united students and housekeepers marched across campus to deliver a letter of opposition to Holden Thorp, the new chancellor.

After entering South Building, Thorp emerged from his office and, to the surprise of all present, invited two representatives from the group back into his office for a chat, leaving the remaining—and now thoroughly bewildered—group in his wake.

After a short meeting, Thorp emerged, having assured the pair that those employees who do not want to work weekends won't have to.

According to Carolyn Elfland, vice chancellor of campus services, Thorp's statements were not the revelation they were later made out to be.

"The committee had already decided that current employees not be required to work weekends," she says. "The committee is now just trying to figure out a schedule that accommodates employees that don't want to work weekends and those that do."

Earlier this month, however, the housekeepers voted down the university's most recent proposal, which attempted to do just that.

Elfland is confident that both sides will come to an agreement before the Oct. 15 deadline.

Breeden is less sanguine.

"If he says it, that carries a lot of weight," she says, pausing before moving on to the second floor. "And that's all we've got right now."

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