People hold signs while protesting the layoff of facilities workers from UTHSC.
People gathered along Union Avenue and East Street on Friday to protest the layoff of facilities service workers from University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center laid off 70 employees, mainly frontline facilities and maintenance workers, Friday morning, according to the university and a union spokeswoman. 

The news came after a week of layoff rumors and amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected low-income and essential workers, union officials said.

“Facilities workers have kept UTHSC running through the pandemic, at great personal risk,” Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO labor council executive secretary Jeffrey Lichtenstein said in a statement.

“This layoff (will) not only devastate families and hurt the local economy. It is unneeded and morally wrong.”

The university, in an internal email to staff that was shared as a statement, attributed the need for layoffs to fewer students and faculty on campus because of the pandemic, leading to changing custodial and facilities staffing requirements. As a result, the university said it’s implementing a campus-wide staff hiring freeze in addition to the layoffs. It has, however, created 17 new positions.

“Please know that this decision was not made lightly, and the university regrets that anyone be displaced as a result of this pandemic,” the email said. “We are hopeful that over time there may be a need to add back some of the positions to meet the demands of campus operation.”

The employees’ last pay day will be May 31, according to the statement.

Dana Smith, Middle Tennessee organizer for the United Campus Workers, said the university was intentionally vague about whether layoffs were happening, “which has caused a lot of fear and uncertainty for workers. …” 

Electrician Tony Patton, who’s worked at the university for 20 years, said that by Thursday rumors were circulating that the layoffs wouldn’t happen. Earlier in the week, Patton asked the university to let employees keep their jobs, saying layoffs “will cause hardship for us and our families during an already difficult time.” 

“I need my job to survive,” he added.

A UTHSC employee provided this termination letter to MLK50. Their name has been redacted for privacy. Courtesy United Campus Workers of Tennessee

But on Friday, employees, including Patton, received letters instructing them to report to a 10 a.m. meeting, to which they were told to bring their keys, ID badge and university iPads as well as “any additional UT issued property.”

Following the meeting, supporters of the workers held a protest rally calling for the university to reverse the layoffs. At the rally, organized by the NAACP Memphis Branch, the United Campus Workers, the AFL-CIO, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and other organizations, Patton said he was “surprised” by the layoffs.

“What I think that they’re trying to do is outsource,” Patton said. Four years ago, the union successfully stopped the university from hiring private workers in place of the university employees, and Patton said he believes the university is now trying again.

For senior skilled craftsman Michael Garrett, 53, the whiplash of rumored layoffs – then rumors refuting the rumors – led him to feel comfortable this week that his job of three years was secure. 

“That’s why I didn’t want to believe it was true. Because all the other layoffs, they told the people, and they knew when it was coming,” he said. 

Like Patton, he got a letter Friday morning, and has been told not to come back to the university for any reason, unless he has “official business.”

“It’s terrible,” he said.

UTHSC was awarded $998,078 from the federal government under the $2 trillion CARES Act, pandemic stimulus funds passed by Congress last March. Of that, half was required to be allocated to student scholarships; as of December, the school had awarded all of the student scholarship portion – as well as $99,039 from the remaining funds – to students.

Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, who expressed concern about layoff rumors at a Monday commission meeting, said Friday he was “disappointed” but expressed hope that with additional government funding, the university might re-hire the employees.

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