illustrations by Mason Thompson

The university’s fall from prestige as a premier employer in Butler County

This could describe campus at 2:40 a.m. on any given weekday: Miami’s geometric sidewalks are bare. Many students are fast asleep. A few are making their way home from their night out. One student, Jacob Bryant, just woke up and is preparing to head to work.

After driving to campus, he pulls into a parking space at Cook Field. By 3:30 a.m., he’s unlocked the doors to Laws Hall and clocked in for work.

Jacob is both a full-time Miami student and employee. The 24 year old hopes to graduate with a degree in botany in May 2020.

Jacob started part time at Miami six years ago. He worked at King Library for a year before moving to Laws Hall.

He used to make a little over $9 an hour, about the same amount he made as a baker at Walmart. He wore a blue polo, signifying his status as a Building and Grounds Assistant.

Now, he and other Miami employees sport the red Miami polo, shared by all Physical Facilities, Dining and Housing staff, with dark wash jeans.

Jacob walks around in gray sneakers that are falling apart from wear and have been bleached from cleaning chemicals. Black rectangular glasses sit atop his nose, and a beaded wood rosary dangles around his neck.

Jacob says five people used to clean Laws Hall. When he arrived, this number dwindled to three.

Now he and his coworker, Keri Sherman, are responsible for the entire building. Two people now cover 69,454 square feet.

“We’re each doing the work of two and a half people,” he said.

Armed with a vacuum and cleaning supplies, Jacob begins work on the first floor of B.E.S.T. Library, which takes up most of Laws Hall. He must finish vacuuming by 8 a.m. so he doesn’t disturb students.

Jacob is also in charge of cleaning Laws 100, the large first-floor lecture hall, and the third floor.  Keri cleans the basement and second floor.

Keri said some people leave to find better work while others retire, but their positions are not being replaced, leaving existing staff “spread thin.”

“People do not like working here,”  Jacob said. “But I can endure it because I can remember old Miami.”

“Once upon a time, generations of families worked for the university.”

“It used to be a big deal to work at Miami, even with terrible pay.”

***

Miami was admirably known as “Mother Miami,” a premier employer in Butler County. The university maintains its status as the largest employer in the county, but its prestige is dwindling.

Despite union contract advances, sentiments of the once-strong community atmosphere are fleeting among workers. With limited staff, the expectations of employees are high and morale is low.

Jeffery Mills, electrician and Miami Union Vice President, chose to work at Miami almost 13 years ago because of the respectful work environment and free tuition waivers for his children.

He said the environment has changed.

Jacob’s brother, stepbrother, uncle, stepfather and step-grandfather worked for Miami. Some retired and some left to find better work.

“Once upon a time, generations of families worked for the university,” Jeff said. “It used to be a big deal to work at Miami, even with terrible pay.”

***

As the secretary for Miami’s Union, AFSCME Ohio Council #8, Local Union 209, Jacob helped negotiate the new contract this summer alongside Jeff. He spends about 12 hours a week doing union work and writing newsletters.

“When I first arrived at Miami, I thought AFSCME was an insurance company,” he said.

According to its website, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) is the largest U.S. trade union with over 1.4 million members nationwide.

Jeff said that unions help negotiate better working conditions and benefits, and provide representation for workers during contract negotiations and disciplinary hearings.

Miami’s new union contract is effective July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2022.

While Jacob voiced concerns about Miami’s work environment, “It’s the best contract we’ve had in 12 years,” he said.

Now, union representatives can be present at the new hire orientation, which has never been allowed before. Jacob hopes it will increase union membership, because new hires can learn about how union participation can influence their work experience.

The lowest paying jobs now start at $13 per hour, a win for the union. Last year, the minimum wage was about $10 per hour.

Jacob felt there was still room for improvement and hoped to negotiate a minimum wage of $15 per hour.

In August 2019, Ohio State University announced it would raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour, in order to attract and maintain a qualified workforce.

Marla Neibling, Director of Employee and Labor Relations, said the university considered negotiating a $15 minimum wage, but “it was not something we could afford to 100% agree to for the next three years.”

Instead, Marla said the administration came up with creative staff incentives. One was a “stay bonus” based on how many years a person had worked at Miami.

While the university already offered longevity bonuses, it reduced the minimum number of years from 10 years to five.

“I’ve heard people say ‘back when it was Mother Miami, we got free parking. But those days are long gone.”

She believes the university and the union negotiated a fair deal for both parties.

“We had to get to a middle ground to get a contract that was fruitful for both parties,” she said.

Despite advances in union negotiations, “Contracts can only address certain things,” Jeff said.

“A new contract won’t make a difference on morale.”

Marla has worked at Miami for three years, and she has only heard long-time employees refer to the university as “Mother Miami.”

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Back when it was Mother Miami, we got free parking,’” she said. “But those days are long gone.”

***

Jacob grew up in Eaton, Ohio, and began working at age 15. He’s worked at both Walmart and KFC — at the same time.

At KFC, he worked his way up to a supervisor position.

“KFC was way better than this [working at Miami],” he said.

Jacob used to live with his brother, who also worked at Miami. They put a down payment on a house together, but lost it last year. Now, Jacob only supports himself with his Miami paycheck and lives alone in an apartment off campus.

He said he has just enough to get by, but other employees are single moms and have families to support.

***

Around 4:30 a.m., Keri pulls her car into the space next to Jacob’s, walks to Laws Hall and clocks in, ready to begin her work on the third floor. She gets a schedule that tells her which classrooms are being used, so she can prioritize her cleaning.

On her agenda, she has classrooms and restrooms to clean, and trash to remove.

Despite the sometimes dirty nature of her job, “It’s done wonders for my immune system,” she  said.

Keri is 46 years old and has worked at Miami for 12 years. She began as a temporary employee in the bookstore.

“Back then, it took a while to get on full-time staff,”  Keri said.

She later moved to Millet, filling in for a man on medical leave. After, she worked for building services in a 10-month, full-time position at the Shriver Center. Then she migrated to the production kitchen in food service for three years. Eventually, she made her way to Laws Hall as a custodian three years ago.

Keri enjoys her hours in Laws Hall. Her 4:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift allowed her to watch her son’s football games.

Keri has three children. Her middle son, who is 22 years old, works part-time at Pepsi as a merchandiser stocking shelves and coolers and setting up displays.

“He makes 15-something an hour, and is making more than I am,” she said. “And I’ve been working here for 12 years.”

But she says she’s lucky. Keri’s husband, an electrician, also supports their family.

“We’re not living paycheck to paycheck like a lot of other people,” she said.

Last year, Keri was diagnosed with melanoma and received treatment about once a month. With limited staff size, if Jacob or Keri takes a sick day, the other is responsible for the entire building.

***

Miami has been hosting job fairs and advertising open job positions, but Jeff said no one shows up. Jacob said that the benefits listed on job advertisements were ironically achieved through union negotiations.

When Jeff began working at Miami, there was a waiting list of job applicants. The Armstrong Student Center, once open 24-hours, restricted its hours during the fall semester to 6:30 a.m. – 2 a.m. due to employee shortages.

The smaller staff size means more custodians have to cover other buildings. Like Jacob, Jeff’s own department had been significantly reduced from 12 to five electricians well before classes canceled mid-semester in spring 2020.

Due to the pandemic, Armstrong Student Center operations are now closed with exception to Pulley Diner and Emporium, which are open with limited hours to provide carryout dining services for students remaining on campus.

Despite tension between workers and management, Jacob empathized with his supervisors.

“They’re being squeezed too,” he said. “It’s the administration’s fault.”

Managers are not covered by the union, which results in more job insecurity. Jacob said this creates a stricter work environment, with changing standards and more intense supervision.

“The one big thing I hear is that you never know what is expected of you,” he said.

Jeff attributes Miami’s diminishing reputation and low morale of workers to management positions being filled by “outsiders.”

“Hiring from the outside makes you feel like all the time, energy and years meant nothing,” Jeff said.

As vice president, he said he hopes to provide a voice for those who cannot afford to speak up and encourages his coworkers to join.

“If you’re not in the union, you’re telling Miami that you’re happy with the way things are going,” he said. “The more people that are involved makes for a better work environment. It means you are more invested in the place you work.”

***

At 6:30 a.m., Keri stands on a chair to remove a sticky note that had been attached to the wall. In one classroom — her “room from hell” — sticky notes are often arranged in pyramids on the wall, left over from in-class brainstorming exercises.

While Keri is removing sticky notes, Jacob has moved on to Laws 100.

The lecture hall is filled with wooden theatre-style seating with collapsible desktops. They’re old, and many of the seats no longer retract to an upright position after its sitter leaves their seat.

Jacob must walk through every aisle and push each seat up so he can sweep underneath.

On this day, Jacob found a powder blue HydroFlask water bottle, which retails around $40, under a seat. He places it on the shelf in the back of the room, where it joined other water bottles, umbrellas and jackets students have left behind.

Jacob says it will probably be there until the end of the semester.

***

By 10 a.m., Jacob has already worked six and a half hours. He clocks out and heads to class.

This fall, he’s taking plant taxonomy, botany principles and landscaping, and a history and opera class for his Miami Plan requirements.

As a full-time student and employee, Jacob experiences two different perspectives. In his classes, he has witnessed other students make fun of workers, calling them “illiterate,” “gross” and “dumb.”

Despite his long days of custodial, class and union responsibilities, Jacob’s hard work has earned him a strong 3.9 GPA.

Keri said Jacob is one of the hardest working people she knows. But Jacob doesn’t want to work at Miami forever.

He wants to get his undergraduate degree, leave Oxford and eventually pursue a Ph.D.

After his last class ends at 3 p.m., Jacob returns to work.

He spends his afternoon shift picking up the basement and making second trash rounds. He focuses special attention to sweeping and mopping the stairs that have accumulated dirt throughout the day.

***

At 5 p.m., Jacob finally clocks out and heads home.

When he returns to his apartment, he does homework and likes to watch movies and read. He tries to get in bed by 9 p.m., but often doesn’t go to sleep until 10.

“Keri and I are both sleep deprived,” he said. “Our break times are often spent setting our alarms.”

His is set for 2:40 a.m.