Michael Garrett, a laid-off UTHSC craftsman, holds a sign that says "I AM Memphis Living in Poverty."
Michael Garrett, a laid-off UTHSC craftsman, protested the university’s actions with about two dozen workers and supporters Thursday. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50.

Workers who were laid off last week by the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center and their supporters held a rally Thursday afternoon demanding that the school rehire the employees.

About two dozen workers, current staff members, local politicians, and other supporters rallied with the United Campus Workers union in front of a university building on Poplar Avenue near downtown, buffeting protest signs against a brisk wind. They chanted “No cuts; no layoffs!” and held signs reading “No layoffs at UTHSC” and “Protect frontline workers” as cars driving by honked in support. 

After a week or so of conflicting rumors, 70 employees – including 59 at the physical plant, whom supporters say were largely Black and low-income – were told Friday morning they would be laid off, effective immediately. The university said they would be paid until May 31.

CARES Act funds

Supporters alleged that the university had no budgetary reason to lay off the employees.

“If the school wants to stick with their promise of ensuring racial justice, social and economic justice in the city of Memphis, then laying off people who are predominantly lower income, predominantly Black is not the way to do it,” said Meghan Cullen, vice president of the UCW Memphis chapter. “The only way to achieve those goals is to employ them.”

A university spokesperson said UTHSC would have no comment on the rally. 

The federal government awarded UTHSC nearly a million dollars 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.

Electrician Tony Patton said the layoff last Friday came on his 20-year work anniversary. He wants the university to recognize his tenure, he said, and wants his job back. If they won’t do that, then workers should be compensated, he said.

“I’ve been here 20 years and if they don’t want us here, then give us severance pay.” 

Blindsided during a pandemic

Many of the laid-off employees worked on-campus and in-person during the pandemic, while other employees were able to work from home.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic,” said Memphis City Councilman Martavius Jones. “These workers just a few months ago were considered essential workers… They have now become expendable workers.”

Painter Jerry New, 60, said he worked on campus throughout the pandemic and was blindsided by the layoff. The university employed him for more than 12 years and the news that he’d lost his job, at which he was paid $17 an hour, came “out of nowhere,” he said. He has been trying to figure out his next plans, which include finding a new source of health insurance. 

The university has said the school’s custodial and facilities staffing needs have changed because fewer students and faculty are on campus during the pandemic. It’s also said it’s implementing a campus-wide staff hiring freeze, but the school did create 17 new positions.

One of those positions, Michael Garrett said, was nearly identical to the job he had for three years as senior skilled craftsman at the university before he was laid off. Garrett, 53, said he doesn’t expect the university to reinstate the jobs.

“They talked to their lawyers … before they terminated us,” he said. “I don’t see no way they reverse it.”

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