Custodial Outsourcing: July 13, 2021

Earlier this morning, Facilities and Operations managers held meetings with all University of Alberta building service workers at the North and Augustana campuses to inform them that President Bill Flanagan and the rest of the President’s Executive Committee (PEC) has made the decision to outsource all remaining university custodial operations to the private contractor Bee-Clean this fall.

Over 60 employees will be affected by this decision.

As with many of the shortsighted moves university leadership has made over the last two years, the decision to fully outsource custodial services has been justified by “the imperative to reduce operational spending” in response to the $170 million cut in provincial funding the University of Alberta has had to absorb since October 2019.

While NASA is well aware of the bleak financial realities the university is facing as a result of the provincial government’s cuts, we are appalled that university leadership has made the decision to address this crisis by sacrificing some of its lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers, who are overwhelmingly women of colour and new Canadians. A number of these workers have been employed at the university since the late 1980s and early 1990s, and have committed a significant part of their working lives to the university community.

Of course, the critical work of keeping our campuses safe and clean will still need to be done, but the largely-invisible people who do this work will simply be paid far less. While NASA is not informed about the salaries of outsourced staff, the initial information provided to NASA by the university indicates outsourced custodial staff will “cost” the university just 54% compared to current in-house university cleaning staff—on average just over $28,000 per person annually. Since this figure presumably includes a profit margin for Bee-Clean, the people doing these jobs will receive significantly less in pay and benefits for the same work NASA’s members performed.

This decision—which the university says will save $400,000 in the first year and $2.6 million annually after that—seems all the more insulting given that the university reported a $35 million operating surplus for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The university’s own comparison also shows that the U of A already has the second-lowest custodial cost per square foot compared to other U15 institutions, meaning these workers are being made to pay the price for past university administrations allowing the size of the campuses to sprawl well beyond the U of A’s peer institutions. The decision also stands in stark contrast to the hiring of a new level of upper administration as the new “college model” is implemented as well as the new hires of middle management due to the SET initiative.

While this heartless decision would be an insult to the hard work of these staff members at any time, it is especially egregious that the university will be outsourcing these staff members just as the university emerges from the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic and is welcoming back tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff to our campuses. Rather than making the necessary investment to ensure a clean, safe, and healthy campus environment, university leadership continues to cut custodial services to what it admits is a “barely acceptable level.” This decision to outsource all remaining university custodial staff follows the April 2020 decision to downgrade the university’s custodial standards to the level of “moderate dinginess” on the APPA scale (level 4 to be specific)—the second-lowest standard, with only the option of “unkempt neglect” available to realize further cost reductions.

While the university has been slowly moving to increase its level of contracted custodial services since 2000, this is the first time university staff have been laid off—all previous outsourcing was accomplished through attrition or voluntary severance agreements. In the past, technical and sensitive facilities such as research labs were intentionally kept in-house due to concerns about contractors operating in sensitive research spaces. Why this long-standing issue is seemingly no longer a concern is unclear. NASA was able to negotiate voluntary departures for some custodial staff in March, and will be working with the impacted members over the coming months to ensure they receive the severance owed to them for their years of commitment and service to the university.

Finally, NASA has also been extremely frustrated with the failure of the administration to follow its own well-defined procedure for making decisions regarding outsourcing, which includes providing the campus unions with “sufficient information to understand all of the business considerations relating to the possible outsourcing” prior to the final decision being made. Despite numerous requests for information, NASA still has not seen or received the university’s business plan—which includes the business case for this round of outsourcing, a draft of the request for proposals, a plan to address HR impacts, and how the university will evaluate whether the outsourcing has been effective—despite the fact that the final decision to outsource has been made by PEC. This failure of university leadership to follow its own policies to meaningfully involve and consult with campus unions and other impacted constituencies is, unfortunately, becoming a consistent pattern.

On June 29, NASA President Jillian Pratt wrote to President Flanagan and other members of PEC with a request to delay and revisit the decision until such time as the university's procedures regarding information disclosure and consultation were met. We received a response from VP (Facilities and Operations) Andrew Sharman on July 9 indicating the university would be proceeding with the outsourcing and justifying PEC's actions to date.