Contract Controversy 

As the state quietly signs contract, campus workers face uncertainty.

In Memphis alone, 765 state employees employed through public higher education institutions now face uncertainty about their employment status, wages, and benefits following the signing of a controversial outsourcing contract between the state of Tennessee and commercial real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL).

The outsourcing plan would turn over maintenance and custodial staffing of all state-owned buildings to for-profit company JLL. Public college campuses would comprise the vast majority of privatizing public jobs.

With 507 campus facility personnel, the University of Memphis employs the majority of the state workers in Memphis. At this point it's unclear whether or not the university intends to sign on to the outsourcing services with JLL.

The student-led organization Progressive Student Alliance has been following the development of the outsourcing plan closely for two years and met with U of M president David Rudd recently to gauge whether or not campus workers will wake up to privatized jobs.

"Rudd has told us that he's personally against the contract, but ultimately, it is something the university board must approve," said PSA organizer Lindsey Smith.

Smith added that some details about the legal mechanisms are unknown.

"Not knowing any of the specifics around opting out leaves workers here feeling unsafe," said Smith.

click to enlarge Organizer Jayanni Webster - MICAELA WATTS
  • Micaela Watts
  • Organizer Jayanni Webster

In an email, FedEx CFO and executive vice president Alan Graf, who serves as the chairman of the university's newly established independent school board, said that the board hasn't discussed the matter and the next public meeting would take place on June 6th.

Provided the contract is approved by the state's comptroller office, it would take effect by May 5th. Though Governor Bill Haslam and the Office of Customer Focused Government (OCFG) have repeatedly stressed that universities have the option not to sign on for JLL services, a full month before the U of M board would even publicly discuss the outsourcing plan would be a departure from the state's own acceleration of the contract approval process.

The contract was signed three days earlier than it was scheduled to be presented to JLL, in a decision that the Department of General Services official David Roberson dismissed as nothing unusual.

"Those dates are just estimates," Roberson said, referring to the timeline made available to the public.

The state's own request for proposals says Tennessee officials must inform institutions included in the scope of the contract. It's unclear if any were.

At last count, 42 legislators signed a letter sent to the OCFG urging for a halt in the contract until the economic implications can be further explored.

At least 17 legislators have asked for economic impact statements specific to their district, but as of press time, none have been released through the state's general services department, though they are constitutionally bound to do so.

Smaller districts stand to be disproportionately affected by outsourcing should job losses occur, many of which rely on state-run parks as significant contributors to the local economy.

Both Haslam and the OCFG have repeatedly and adamantly stuck by several points of assurance for the outsourcing plan: Jobs will be protected, benefits will be matched, the state could save upwards of $35 million a year with full participation, and every public institution has the discretion whether or not to sign on.

But as specifics from the contract emerge, many of the administration's talking points are coming into question, and opposing parties point to hazy language such as "total equitable compensation", "similar essential value," and "appropriate insurance coverage" as feeble reassurance.

The Flyer has issued a request for comment to Rudd.

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