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The University of Arkansas considers outsourcing custodial and groundskeeping jobs

The front lawn of Old Main at the University of Arkansas.
The front lawn of Old Main at the University of Arkansas.

Zachary Kahler has been a member of the grounds crew at the University of Arkansas for the last 4 years. His official job title is Heavy Equipment Operator, but he also has a self-imposed title.

“I’m the number one grass cutter,” said Kahler. “There’s two of us, and we cut the grass on the majority of the lawns.”

He eventually lets on that it’s a running joke between him and his fellow grass cutter. “We’re both number one,” he said. 

He said he and his coworkers sincerely enjoy doing it.

“The level of passion I've seen from guys that are willing to get up at 2 in the morning to be at work,” Kahler said, “to do the job in the cold in a Kubota with no heat, just so the students and the faculty and anybody could come to the university without slipping and falling … I mean, if that's not passion, I don't know what it is.”

But in late January, Kahler found out that his job — and his employer — could be different soon.

“We were informed that they're seriously considering going with an outside source,” said Kahler, “so that [means] we won't be employees of the university anymore.”

Ozarks at Large obtained a recording of the meeting that was held on January 30th, led by the Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Scott Turley.

“The first thing is that nothing has been decided,” said Turley. “This was a decision to at least explore this, and so we’ve engaged a company called SSC.”

SSC Services for Education is a private for-profit business that specializes in custodial and groundskeeping services for higher education institutions. According to their website, SSC is working in more than 50 colleges and universities in the U.S.

A letter was provided to U of A staff from groundskeeping and housekeeping that said “The U of A has requested a review by representatives of SSC. Consultants with SSC who have expertise in higher education building custodial and campus landscape services will be conducting a site visit January 31st to February 1st.” The letter goes on to say “feedback gathered will be shared with university leadership in late February to early March and appropriate time would be needed for the university to diligently evaluate options. This study could lead to multiple outcomes, include no changes at all, a hybrid approach including some functions but not others, or a full external management transition of all functions.”

Mark Rushing is associate vice chancellor for University Relations and the head spokesperson for the U of A. He said the number of employees impacted by this decision ultimately depends on which of those three options the university lands on.

“The potential would be a few hundred employees,” said Rushing, “but I don’t have the exact number because I think it would depend on what decisions are made at the end of the assessment.

Brad Edwards is the coordinator for housekeeping for the University of Arkansas and has been an employee of the university for 15 years. He said he has not been given any assurances of job security.

“That would impact my livelihood, for one,” said Edwards. “I have family, I have a home to take care of. Outsourcing would affect me really bad.”

When he first got word about the potential changes, he decided to put together a petition. It reads — in part — “Building services has had a long history of being loyal, faithful, and hard workers. Our custodians are the university’s essential workers that show up for the days campus is closed due to harsh weather. They were our frontline workers throughout the Covid pandemic. We are asking for the same faithful backing from our university community to assist us in petitioning our leadership to reconsider the decision to outsource our jobs.” Edwards said he collected more than 400 signatures from faculty and staff at the university.

“I wanted to pursue the petition to get as many people involved as possible to come forward, speak, and trey to save their jobs,” said Edwards. “For me, it was a mission to get as many signatures as possible, and to make a statement. We’re not going anywhere. We’re here to stay.”

Kahler said he’s proud to work for the university.

“And everybody felt the same way,” said Kahler. “We had job security, and a lot of people have said [they’re] not there for the money, it’s for the benefits.”

Whether you are a tenured professor at the University of Arkansas or the number one grass cutter, having a full-time position provides you with access to pretty substantial benefits. That includes health insurance for you and your family, a retirement plan, and a tuition discount. Full time employees can receive as much as a 90 percent discount on tuition. Their spouses and children can receive half-off tuition.

Rushing said if the university does decide to move forward with SSC, they have made the decision that anyone currently taking advantage of the tuition discount program would be allowed to continue and finish the program regardless.

Michael Pierce is a professor of history at the University of Arkansas whose research often focuses on labor. He said when he first heard about this potential outsourcing, he had concerns.

The biggest red flag is this is part of a larger trend that has been going on across the United States for probably 40 or 50 years,” said Pierce. “The reason they generally do this is to cut costs. they want the maintenance cost, custodial costs, and the grounds cost to be as little as possible. They will promise to continue paying the current employees’ wages, but it automatically becomes in their best interest to get rid of the longest tenured and the highest paid employees and replace them with new hires who start back at the minimum. And for these companies that privatize and provide these services, high turnover is instrumental to their business model. With Mr. Edwards here, he has been here 15 years … that means nothing to these private companies, because their pay is slightly above others. It will become in the privatized company’s interest to get rid of them and hire new workers.”

Back at the meeting with the grounds crew, a member asks whether or not there is any guarantee that SSC will hire and keep the current university employees. Turley said that for some period of time, they will be guaranteed a job. An employee asks how far up the job cuts go, asking Turley if his job is at risk. Turley said no.

Kahler said the mood of the staff has changed a lot since that meeting.

“It’s killed morale,” Kahler said. “People have given everything, they’ve given blood, sweat, and tears. They feel like it’s arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Until we know for sure, all bets are off. People want to know.”

Rushing said the university has moved jobs to an outside agency before.

“Over 25 years ago, the university made the decision to move its dining services to externally managed model,” said Rushing. “The University of Arkansas bookstore has gone back and forth between an externally managed model.”

The university has already been contracting out some of the landscaping and grounds maintenance work, but Kahler said there’s a noticeable difference between the contracted work and the university employee’s work.

“To my knowledge, [they] aren’t doing trash,” said Kahler. “They aren’t mulching the leaves in the fall. They aren’t doing stick pickup. These are constant things on a daily basis. They come and trim and cut the grass. That’s fine, but there’s so much more to the job. That’s why there’s cigarette butts on the ground. Nobody notices until they notice, and they go ‘Man, why does it look so bad?’ Well, you’re paying for the soup but you don’t want the spoon.”

Rushing said that the company helping to make these assessments is called AArete. In February of 2023, the university announced they had hired this company after placing a bid for “Campus Cost Containment Consulting Services.” That contract was for $1.65 million, according to the university’s expenditures for fiscal year 2023.

“AArete knows that SSC is a part of a larger, cooperative consortium contact that Arkansas procurement law allows us to work with,” said Rushing, “and so it would be natural for AArete to consider SSC and include them as a part of the assessment.”

Senator Greg Leding serves district 30, which includes Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas campus. He said he has been told by university employees that no decision has been made at this time, but he said it is also worth noting that March 6th is the first day of meetings with higher education institutions with the Arkansas Legislature for the fiscal session.

“From what I’m hearing from employees on campus,” said Senator Leding, “it does sound like the university is trying to get into position where they can have a decision made before that meeting.”

When asked about the March 6th meeting, Rushing said he hasn’t reviewed the agenda, but he offered to follow up when he knew more.

In the meantime, Kahler said some of his colleagues are not counting on job security.

“They’re coming up with backup plans just in case,” said Kahler. “I know guys that are pay $1045 just for rent. Fayetteville finally caught up with the rest of the world. Rents are ridiculous — not just for students, but for people that are trying to work and live here. I have always said nobody’s going to commute 100 miles to make you a cup of coffee in the morning, and that needs to be put in the decision process. You’re phasing people out, and it's a rippling effect. People that are doing the daily tasks that you don't even notice — without a scene— are not going to be able to afford to live here. Pretty soon, you’re not going to be able to afford to live in a place where they can commute to work and do the job for what’s being offered.”

Rushing said the assessment is still ongoing, so there’s no set date for an announcement right now.

“We just want to make sure we’ve got all the data we need and heard from everybody we need to hear from to make the right decision,” said Rushing. “But if the decision is made to go with an external management, realistically that would not be implemented until sometime next fiscal year.”

Brad Edwards said if the deal goes through, he hasn’t decided yet if he’ll accept a position.

“I would have to think about that. Paid could drop, we could lose benefits, and that would hurt my wellbeing.”

Edwards acknowledged he is not someone who likes the limelight or speaking up.

“But no one wants to speak up, so I’m stepping up.”

Zach Kahler said he has made his decision already.

“I’ve already made it quite known that I will not be working for the new company,” said Kahler. “It is a decision of the university. If they no longer need my services, then I will request a termination letter from HR. I agreed to work for the university, I’m not working for a third party or outside source. I’m not a commodity, I won’t be resold. It’s not going to happen on my watch.”

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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