70 frontline workers at a Tennessee school were laid off. Now legislators are rallying for them.

2021 03 12T190847Z_411747774_MT1USATODAY15713345_RTRMADP_3_DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST AGAINST THE LAYOUTS OF SEVENTY UTHSC.JPG
Demonstrators protest against the layoffs of 70 UTHSC frontline facilities workers in Memphis, Tenn., on Friday, March 12, 2021.The University Of Tennessee Health Science Center Layouts

  • 70 frontline workers were abruptly laid off from University of Tennessee Health Science Center in March.
  • Now, local lawmakers are calling for their roles and pay to be reinstated.
  • Insider spoke to two laid off workers about their experiences, and what the layoffs meant for them.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

On his 20th anniversary of working at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, electrician Tony Patton was called in to a meeting.

That’s when he found out that he was one of 70 frontline facilities workers being laid off.

Patton had heard whispers about layoffs about a week before. Carpenter Michael Garrett said he had heard about potential layoffs the Monday before they came – but administrators said they were just rumors.

Then on March 12, workers were brought into a room and given letters that told them to turn in their keys, badges, and anything else pertaining to the university, as Laura Testino at the Memphis Commercial Appeal first reported. They were told that their positions were eliminated.

But Patton fought back with the help of his union, Communications Workers of America. The UTHSC’s union push is part of a broader trend towards revitalized labor organizing across the country. After decades of diminished union power increased income inequality, essential workers in hospitals and warehouses have been fighting for their safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tony Patton
Tony Patton, one of the workers laid off.

Patton and the UTHSC union’s effort also follows Amazon workers’ historic union vote in Bessemer, Alabama. Although that vote failed to gain the number of votes needed to form a union, it could still pave the way for other organizing groups.

“The most important thing to me is making sure that my family and my home is taken care of,” Patton said. “And how could I do it if I don’t have employment and don’t have the money coming in that I need?”

Workers were told 17 new positions had been posted, which, according to the Commercial Appeal, could be applied for right away. Garrett, who had worked at the school for 20 years and hoped to work there until his retirement, said that 12 new positions with the same job description and duties as his were posted after his layoff.

For Patton, who worked as an electrician, the university didn’t list anything that would match his skills.

“When I went on there and looked, none of the positions say electrician,” Patton said. “So how am I getting my job back if y’all ain’t got no position for me?”

Local legislators are offering up their support

Now, the entire state legislative caucus for Memphis is sending a letter expressing concerns over the layoffs. They’re urging the school to reverse the layoffs and hire back the workers at their prior seniority and pay levels.

“These layoffs would devastate the workers they affect, costing whole families their income and health insurance. They are the workers who helped ensure UTHSC continued to function through the pandemic,” the legislators wrote. “They made possible the vaccine trials and other key functions of UTHSC to our community and have enabled the institution’s strong financial position and recent growth, which remains steady despite the pandemic.”

The University of Tennessee received more than $9 million in federal aid at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The US approved a $14 billion bailout for colleges and universities in March 2020 as they closed doors and scrambled to adapt to distanced learning. Yet many universities opened for in-person learning in the fall, when COVID-19 cases had begun to surge and vaccines had not been approved.

Analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The New York Times indicated college reopenings may have led to an increase in COVID-19 outbreaks in the area.

The University of Tennessee had to quarantine thousands of students and staff by September 2020.

The layoffs hit the school’s frontline workers

Both Patton and Garrett had been working in person, like other frontline workers around the country. Patton said his family worried about him going in.

“I explained to them, I said I still have a job to do, even though this is going on,” Patton said. “But I’m going to take the precautions that I have to take.”

Patton said that, since his layoff, the only time he’s returned to campus has been to protest the layoffs with his union, United Campus Workers.

2021 03 12T190846Z_1181079371_MT1USATODAY15713344_RTRMADP_3_DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST AGAINST THE LAYOUTS OF SEVENTY UTHSC.JPG
Demonstrators protest against the layouts of seventy UTHSC frontline facilities workers in Memphis, Tenn., on Friday, March 12, 2021.

Patton also noted that the vast majority of workers laid off – by his count, 60 of the 70 – were Black.

Throughout the pandemic, Black workers have been disproportionately impacted and unemployed, partly because Black people were overrepresented in front-line jobs during COVID-19.

Following the disparate impact COVID-19 had on Black Americans and ongoing police killings of unarmed Black people, organizations like the University of Tennessee made a commitment to racial equality.

“We all need to join together to carry the torch of safety, dignity, respect, and human rights for everyone,” University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a memo on May 30.

Daniel Dassow at The Daily Beacon reported that UCW president and lecturer Anne Langendorfer said that the layoff was “racist.”

“This is a predominantly Black workforce in a majority Black city and it’s currently the only group of workers targeted for a layoff,” Langendorfer reportedly said.

Right now, the future is uncertain

The workers who were laid off will be paid through June 31, and are currently still able to get their health insurance through the university, although Garrett isn’t sure when that will end. Patton said that his wife is on both his dental and medical insurance.

“You don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills. I just went and bought a new car,” Garrett said. He added: “I got a daughter who’s 19 going to college, and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my child support.”

Hannah Grabenstein at nonprofit newsroom MLK50 reported that UTHSC received almost a million dollars in CARES Act funding, with half of it earmarked for grants to students. Per a compliance letter from the school, all of that grant money had been doled out – along with an additional $99,039 from the rest of the school’s pot.

“I’m trying to get over it, but it’s hard to get over,” Patton said. “After 20 years you just up and let a person go.”

UTHSC did not respond to a request for comment.

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