Several years ago, housekeeper Karen Brownlee received a call: someone had accidentally sprayed a fire extinguisher in Helmreich House.
“We walked in and it was just covered—the entire building,” she said, “and the weekend people had to go in and clean it up.”
The difficulty of the work the support staff does is not always recognized. From fire extinguisher rampages, to defecation in mop buckets, to students moving into laundry rooms, Bowdoin support staff truly has the College’s back. Cleaning chemical guides must be followed precisely; bleachers are not easy to move.
Brownlee, who has worked at the College for five years, said the difficulty can take new hires by surprise.
“I think people see it as ‘Oh, it’s just housekeeping,’ and then they’re like, ‘Shit, it’s pretty hardcore,”’ she said.
The College employs around 380 support staff working in areas like housekeeping, security, dining, facilities, grounds and academic support. These employees are essential, and many say the College provides excellent compensation and benefits.
Despite Bowdoin’s attractive working environment, as with any workplace, it is not entirely conflict free.
Employees can bring concerns to Human Resources (HR), or to a variety of other programs. Though Director of Human Resources Tama Spoerri said that the first person an employee should talk to is their supervisor, HR knows other outlets are necessary.
All budgeted full time equivalent (FTE) employees of the College who work at least 20 hours a week during the academic year on a set schedule are eligible for the benefits package.
Workers who are not full time employees of the College—like those who are brought in to replace a person on sick leave or extra security guards hired for busy weekends with large events—are not eligible for the benefits package.
The standard benefits package for employees includes medical coverage, dental coverage, vacation time, sick time, and a retirement plan that kicks in after one year of employment as long as the employee is over the age of 26. The Human Resources department added vision coverage to the benefits package a few years ago.
The disability plan for hourly workers used to be different than that of salary workers, but the HR department changed the program this year to make it standard among all employees.
In the past, hourly workers had to choose between either paying for a disability plan that would kick in after 15 days of missing work or having a disability plan that was free, but pay only kicked in after 60 days of missing work. That system was eliminated earlier this year. Now the disability plan is free and pay kicks in after 15 days of missing work due to a disability.
The College also changed the long-term disability program earlier this year.
Long-term disability payments kick in after 25 weeks of being unable to work. Employees used to receive payments equal to 60 percent of their base pay, but this amount was taxed. Employees received lower payments than they expected so the HR department decided to make the payment equal to 60 percent of the employee’s base pay without tax reductions.
The HR department has made changes to benefit plans in response to legitimate concerns raised by employees, situations that highlight flaws in the plans, or recommendations from the Benefits Advisory Committee.
Lack of union organizations
Presently, Bowdoin does not have any independent labor organizations. Security officers were unionized until the 1990s, when they voted to decertify. Spoerri said she hasn’t recently heard desire for unionization from any staff at the College.
“When I first got here, there was a little bit of chatter about [unionization],” said grounds crew worker Mike Grim, who has worked at the College for eight years. He said the consensus was that organizing was not a very realistic idea.
“We do have a couple of people on our crew who are really gung-ho about it,” said Daniel Kimmick, another housekeeper. “I wouldn’t personally do a union, because I think we would lose a lot of benefits that Bowdoin gives us.”
Despite the fact that Maine is an at-will employment state—employees can be fired without cause or advance notice—Spoerri said that the issues leading to the last unionization discussion were resolved through internal communication and without any disciplinary action.
“People feel they have pretty good working conditions—they’re fairly paid and have good benefits,” said Spoerri.
Kimmick said, “I’ve learned not to mess with something that’s good.”
Support Staff Advocacy Committee
The Support Staff Advocacy Committee (SSAC) is one organization on campus that helps represent Bowdoin staff both within their workplace and to the administration. The SSAC works with HR and other on-campus resources to be a representative voice for support staff. The SSAC also puts on events and works on community building. The overall goal of the SSAC is to make sure support staff are able to take advantage of everything Bowdoin has to offer.
In some regards, the SSAC comes close to filling the role of a union, but as an organization heavily intertwined with the HR department, it is distinct from an independent labor union advocating on behalf of workers at the College. However, Grim, member of the committee, said that when there is conflict, the SSAC is able to work in a way similar to that of a theoretical union in that it advocates for workers.
“I look at the SSAC the same as a union organization,” Grim said. “Ideas are presented that could help the workers, it’s taken up the chain, and we work with management to see if it can fly.”
“I call it a quality-of-life program for our workers,” he added.
Rosie Armstrong, program coordinator for the Environmental Studies department and co-chair of the SSAC, said that the SSAC was founded to ensure staff could address their concerns.
“It was a way to give support staff voice so that problems didn’t fester,” said Armstrong. “If people were frustrated, there was an avenue of communication with administration.”
One of the most popular events that the SSAC puts on is the annual lunch with President Barry Mills in which he addresses the support staff and then opens up the floor for questions.
The SSAC also surveys Bowdoin support staff and uses that information to help decide what programs to work on putting together. Recently, after hearing that staff were interested in skill building, especially surrounding computer programming and software use, the SSAC worked to install a Lynda.com kiosk in H-L Library. Lynda.com is a website which provides tutorials that improve users’ computer skills. Staff members have access to this kiosk and can use it to browse and view a large variety of these tutorials.
The SSAC also worked to set up a sick bank, where employees can donate up to 100 hours of sick time per year, provided they keep 500 hours in their own bank. Support staff who must miss work for extended time periods due to illness or injury, yet don’t qualify for disability, can use hours from the bank.
The SSAC meets with HR to discuss trends and desires of the staff, but does not discuss individuals. Spoerri also sits on the SSAC.
The job of dealing with day-to-day concerns of employees falls less to the SSAC, which focuses on longer-term improvements, and more on the Workplace Advisors Program (WAP).
There are currently eight workplace advisors on campus and the group includes both faculty and support staff. According to their brochure, the WAP “provides a confidential, neutral and informal process that facilitates fair and equitable resolutions to concerns that arise in the workplace.”
The function of the WAP is primarily to provide a listening ear to the concerns of employees. There is no formal procedure that is associated with contacting a Workplace Advisor, conversations are not on the record, and the only time they are required to disclose information brought to them is if it involves imminent harm or sexual harassment.
Talking to a Workplace Advisor does not involve a notice being sent to HR. Mostly, Workplace Advisors aid in conflict resolution by giving advice or connecting staff to other resources that could help them. Donna Trout, the coordinator of the psychology department and the coordinator of WAP, says the experience is like talking to a friend.
“You’re never really sure if they’re asking you something because you’re a Workplace Advisor or because you know them,” said Trout.
Trout said that most problems that get brought up with her are surrounding issues with co-workers or supervisors, and often concern inequity—when an employee feels they are being treated differently than someone else.
Workplace Advisors are nominated by their peers, then selected by the current Workplace Advisors. They then receive HR training. The Workplace Advisors also meet with the College’s President to discuss trends that they have encountered, though due to their anonymity policy, no specifics are brought up.
Correction, May 2: An earlier version of this article stated that the disability plan for support staff kicks in after 25 days of missing work due to a disability; it has been corrected to show that the disability plan kicks in after 15 days.