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Working Conditions at OU Less Than Ideal
The Oklahoma Daily
Matt Bruenig

November 22, 2010
View the Original Article

This semester, I spent a significant amount of time trying to learn about the lives of workers at OU as a member of the student coalition behind the Living Wage for OU campaign.

In my time working on the campaign, I have stumbled across issues workers here are put up against that have surprised me. I knew going in, just by looking at the OU budget, that the university is paying some of its employees wages below the federal poverty line, and well below the living wage line.

One thing I had not considered about this fact is that these low wages have forced some campus workers to rely on various forms of government aid to actually get by. This of course is an obvious result of paying poverty wages, but it is especially absurd when you recall that the staff at OU are state employees.

Consider how nonsensical this is. The state of Oklahoma, via OU, is paying some of its employees so little that the state, via welfare programs, has to extend them aid because they are impoverished. As a policy, this is almost laughable. It doesn’t cut costs for the state, it just shifts the costs to other accounts, and perhaps shifts some of it to the federal government, which funds some of the aid programs.

Beyond that little observation, I also was stunned by what workers told me about the firing policies at the university, and how those policies affect them in their daily jobs.

OU operates under an employment-at-will policy, which means the university can fire any employee at any time for any reason or no reason at all. More than that, during Wednesday’s OU Staff Senate meeting, it was mentioned that the administration is working to remove language in the staff handbook, which states, “It is the policy of the university to provide stable employment to its employees,” to underscore their dedication to the at-will doctrine.

On its face, stripping employment stability from the workforce at OU is an unconscionable action, especially in an economic environment as brutal as the current one. But there also are some lesser-known impacts this policy has on working conditions more generally.

When people are constantly fearful they may be fired, they are less likely to speak up about legitimately hazardous work conditions or malicious supervisors. One might think working at OU is not very dangerous, but remember there are still buildings and tunnels on this campus that are insulated with asbestos, and multiple employees who I have heard from have mentioned occurrences of asbestos spills.

Additionally, such a policy can theoretically lead to malicious and wrongful firings. Workers have told me stories about people they believed were fired maliciously, some even giving names. Whether they actually were fired maliciously, I cannot independently verify, but the at-will policy leads people to think they were, which poses its own problems. Reacting to a perceived firing of his colleague, one worker told me that since the day of the firing, he has felt like the workplace was hostile and that he or she is in constant fear of being fired.

This brutal working climate is completely unacceptable, and I am not sure the administration fully comprehends this is going on. After all, the most prominent consequence of employment-at-will is that people are fearful to speak out to their bosses, because they cannot afford to stand out and risk termination.

Ultimately, I hope to see wages improved at this campus. But at minimum and for the time being, the administration really should rethink its employment-at-will policy or construct some way to fix the negative impacts it has on worker morale and safety. Unlike providing a living wage, improving the at-will policy has the added benefit of being budget neutral.