Sunday Marks Last Day On Job For UW-Superior Workers

School Will Now Rely On Private Company For Grounds, Custodial Work To Avoid Deficit

Notes and flyers are posted around the UW-Superior campus showing support for the custodial and grounds crew. Photo: Danielle Kaeding/WPR News.

For three years, Jeanette Johnson has been helping keep University of Wisconsin-Superior clean. Now, Johnson says she’s ready to make a clean break.

She’s one of 19 people who received official layoff letters from the school’s administration on Christmas Eve. Sunday will be her last day of work at the school, as it will be for her colleagues.

Johnson said she’s going to miss the people at UW-Superior.

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“I’m hoping that my co-workers and myself will be able to not just spite this place forever and say, ‘Oh, UWS is bad.’ It’s like, yeah, a bad thing happened, but life goes on. This is a statewide thing. This isn’t the only school. I get the feeling that this is going to snowball,” said Johnson.

UW-Superior is outsourcing the jobs as part of a plan to save money in the face of declining enrollment, a tuition freeze, and state funding cuts. It’s contracting with Tennessee-based Service Solutions Company for an annual savings of roughly $350,000.

The workers who the school laid off had a chance to reapply for their jobs with the company. A UW-Superior spokeswoman says at least two custodians accepted jobs.

Chancellor Renee Wachter said it wasn’t an easy choice.

A rally held last summer in support of the custodial and grounds crew who were then at risk of being fired. Photo: Wisconsin AFL-CIO (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Jeanette Johnson is planning to attend UW-Stout in the fall for entertainment design now that she has been laid off from UW-Superior. Photo: Danielle Kaeding/WPR News.

“That we’re in this situation today really underscores the fiscal reality that our fiscal institutions are facing as these budget reductions are happening system-wide and across the state of Wisconsin,” said Wachter.

The Legislature has been putting pressure on the UW System with $500 million in cuts since the 2001-2002 biennium, and a tuition freeze in the last budget. Gov. Scott Walker is proposing to keep tuition frozen.

UW System President Ray Cross said they’re making adjustments to make sure students get a quality education. He said UW-Superior needs to submit a plan for a balanced budget in exchange for $2 million from the System that keeps them out of the red. Outsourcing, Cross said, is just one way to find savings.

“We have to be able to find ways to shift expenses/costs into savings from the back office side — from the non-teaching side — over to the instructional side,” said Cross.

Cross said no other universities are planning to outsource to his knowledge.

UW-Marathon County outsourced its campus bookstore and custodial staff last year. Dean Keith Montgomery said there’s not much savings in supplies and expenses when 90 percent of the budget is staff.

“It’s really unfortunate that you lose those jobs, but you can say that our core mission is education,” said Montgomery. “It’s unfortunate you’d have to say that we can replace custodians with a janitorial service that’s not impacting the education that we provide to students in the classroom.”

Cross, however, said that doesn’t mean staff are valued less than faculty.

“What I’m arguing is that if there’s no teaching or instruction, then there is no one else employed,” he said. “We have to make sure that teaching and the instructional side and on research campuses the research portion continues to be strong or we threaten the existence of a campus.”

UW-Superior Sociology Professor Marshall Johnson said faculty aren’t immune to financial pressures, and that some are leaving out of fear.

“They’re putting off things like buying homes, having children,” said Johnson. “They’re putting everything into the future because of the student debt they carry. They have to be very wise in their decisions about where they’re going to stay.”

UW-Superior junior Preston Fuller said they’re having a hard time with the move to outsource staff.

“Just watching them suddenly get shoved away like they weren’t worth anything to the UW System just felt wrong on so many levels,” said Fuller.

As for Jeanette Johnson, she said she’s relieved to get on with her life and leave the whole mess behind.