When Deane Irving was laid off from his job as a computer operator at N.C. State University last year, he felt the process, while not desirable, was at least fair.
He received a severance package and is now happily retired. But if the N.C. General Assembly approves a provision of a N.C. Senate bill, then the authority of about 22,000 UNC-system workers — which included Irving — could be removed from the state and given to the system’s Board of Governors.
And Irving said that a lack of protection under the State Personnel Act could have hurt him when he was laid off because employee protections would have been limited to a set of “guiding principles” the board approved Friday.
“(The bill) seems to want to take away the protections of the State Personnel Act from the lowest-paid employees, which are the employees that have the least power,” he said. “I feel like they’re just doing away with these protections and not giving employees anything but their word.”
Housekeepers, maintenance workers and other system staff members are all currently protected under the State Personnel Act, but this provision would lump workers with faculty members under the system’s authority.
The overall bill, which was introduced by Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, died in committee last year, but this provision could be considered in May during the legislature’s short session.
The guiding principles the board passed Friday are to ensure a measured and deliberate process, said board member Phil Dixon.
The principles are meant to reassure employees that they would still receive due process and the right of appeals to a panel of employee peers if the provision passes, Dixon said.
But as board members discussed the principles and cast their votes, student and worker protesters interrupted with planned speeches voicing their opposition to the provision and the guiding principles.
Chairwoman of the Board Hannah Gage repeatedly asked the protesters to stop, eventually having them escorted out by police officers stationed outside.
Nobody was arrested, and the interruptions continued throughout the meeting.
“I don’t know if it helps them when they present themselves that way,” Gage said at a press conference afterward. “I think it can create a reverse effect on how people feel on the legislation.”
But Ivanna Gonzalez, a junior at UNC involved with Student Action with Workers, said she felt the interruptions were necessary to have their voices heard.
“We’re upset at how undemocratic this process has been and the lack of transparency,” she said. “There has been this wall of people unwilling to talk to us.”
After the board meeting, system President Thomas Ross met with students individually to discuss their concerns.
At the press conference, Ross pointed to misinformation as the leading cause of the protests.
“This is about trying to put ourselves in a position where we can do more for our employees, and this has been a tough time for employees,” he said, citing pay freezes. “We have no incentive to do something that harms our employees. That is not the case at all.”’
Dixon, who is the chairman of the board’s personnel and tenure committee, said he was surprised by the protests.
“I do think there’s some misinformation,” he said. “There’s a suggestion that employees would be at will (of the board), which is not what would happen.”
“They’d be treated the same way faculty are treated.”
But Gonzalez said the group’s concern is the vagueness of the guiding principles, which are not yet legally binding.
“People still have a lot of questions. At the very least, we’re asking that the system be laid out,” she said. “It’s very vague language that doesn’t really get at the nitty-gritty.”
Ross said he has spoken to Stevens, who said he would put the guidelines into the legislation.
But Irving said he remains skeptical about the board’s intentions.
“They say they want to develop a new set of guidelines — well, these guidelines have been here the 40 years I worked for the university,” he said. “It puts an awful lot of power in the hands of a few.”
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