Back from war, housekeeping manager faces new challenge

Clarification (September 1, 1:13 a.m.): Due to a reporting error, this unclearly portrays an unnamed housekeeper’s stance toward the Wage-Hour Policy. She clarified Tuesday she is in support of parts of the policy but not the part that prohibits employees from sitting down without notifying supervisors in advance. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

Inside a glass case on her office wall, Tonya Sell keeps reminders of battles fought.

From a folded American flag to naval ribbons spanning the color spectrum, the case bears evidence of a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy. More than a dozen medals pay tribute to her 15 and a half years of service to the deprived and depraved, to the sacrifices she made on the desolate battlegrounds of Kosovo and Somalia.

After three tours in Iraq totaling 45 months, she was prepared to put those battles behind her. To return home to North Carolina. And to begin anew in Chapel Hill.

But little changed.

“It was like going to a country, trying to help and they’re spitting in your face,” Sell said.

Upon her February 2009 promotion from zone manager to assistant housekeeping director, Sell found herself in the crossfire yet again.

She said cliques were rampant among the housekeeper ranks. Professionalism was scarce. Policies were not enforced consistently, if at all.

And as she tried to overcome the inertia and institute reform, an enemy emerged in James Holman, an elected Employee Forum representative serving his third year.

Although her insignia remained inside the case, Sell was forced to wear her military experience on her sleeve as she righted the housekeeping department’s ship — a process that has brought her at odds with some housekeepers, especially Holman.

As her efforts drew more fire, wedge issues became the new ammunition. And like a skilled tactician, Holman has carefully selected his moments.

“It’s like he was waiting for something,” Sell said. “And this was it.”

That “something” was the recent debate over the Wage-Hour Policy, which came under scrutiny earlier this month after eight housekeepers were disciplined for taking unauthorized sit-down breaks. The policy requires employees to obtain approval for any break beyond the two allotted 15-minute rests and one-hour lunch break.

During the hectic move-in preparations of late July and early August, seven full-time workers faced weeklong unpaid suspensions, and one temporary housekeeper was fired.

Only the two female housekeepers caught in July ultimately served their suspensions, but they were reimbursed after the disciplinary actions — along with the five other suspensions and the firing of the temporary worker — were expunged following an Employee Forum committee meeting.

But Holman said he isn’t satisfied.

“This is civilian life. This is not the military,” said Holman, arguing that Sell’s enforcement has been overly stringent. “They haven’t been in these positions long. This is crazy.”

Sell, however, said that Holman’s opposition is at center of a larger agenda to divide housekeepers and regain some of the influence he has lost under her control.

And she added that she was “flabbergasted” by the outcry, expressing disbelief at the audacity of some housekeepers.

“You can’t come here and work four hours and sleep four hours so you can go to your other job after work,” Sell said.

A slap in the face

Leaving the armed forces in 2007 came with more than a salute, medals and honorable discharge for Sell: It came with a contract prohibiting her from detailing her combat experiences for at least 10 years.

Of the little she is at liberty to speak about, Sell occasionally reflects on one incident. Her unit was taking heavy gunfire, and Sell said one soldier — whose ideal of war “had to be from video games” — froze and began to cry.

“I smacked him around and told him he needed to get his shit together,” said Sell, who occasionally accompanied ground forces as a first class petty officer.

Since arriving at UNC, Sell said she has attempted to slap sense into a housekeeping force that she said was lacking in professionalism and consistency.

Last year, she looked to curb housekeepers’ use of student study lounges, citing the separate break rooms that are available to employees.

That issue sparked a rift with Holman, who claimed that housekeepers have the right to rest in areas they clean.

It was that sense of propriety — and lack of care for the “customer” — that Sell said she sought to extinguish as assistant director of housekeeping.

“Housekeepers can’t hang out in lounges,” Sell said. “It’s unfair to ask (students) if that is even OK. That shouldn’t be a question.”

Under the reign of her predecessor, however, there was much to question. Zone managers enforced policies with varying levels of strictness and occasionally blurred the line between friend and supervisor.

On occasion, Sell said she would hear complaints of housekeepers yelling at students or arriving at work with unacceptable dress. Disciplinary action was sometimes contingent upon the housekeepers’ relationships with their supervisors.

“It breaks down to a level of professionalism,” Sell said.

At once, the sit-down policy debate has brought to light the polarity within the housekeeping community and the success of Sell’s efforts to instill consistency.

Earlier this month, zone manager Cathy Knight caught her cousin taking a break without prior authorization. Housekeepers said the suspension broke Knight’s heart — but she had to do it. At a meeting Friday, one of the housekeepers suspended in August offered her support of the policy and admitted guilt. She requested anonymity.

“It’s got to go both ways. If I come and you’re sitting down, I have no clue how long you’ve been sitting,” said crew leader Oscar Manuel of the policy. “When you get caught, take it. Don’t run to the forum.”

Manuel, whose crew served under Sell during her time as a zone manager, said Holman has abused his power on the Employee Forum, using it to oppose new initiatives such as the OS-1 cleaning system, which is intended to improve cleaning and employee safety.

And several members of the housekeeping administration agreed, saying Holman represents only about a dozen of his supporters.

“These are not large issues. These are things that are important to him,” said Bill Burston, director of housekeeping services and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “He doesn’t always have all the info.”

But Holman said he is more representative of the housekeepers, citing his election success. His opponents have attributed this access to voter apathy.

Laurel Ashton, a Student Action with Workers member who has supported Holman, leveled the same criticism against Sell’s supporters.

“This is a tactic of management to divide housekeepers so that they are unable to stand up for themselves,” the UNC junior said.

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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