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Monday December 6th

'Smoke and mirrors': Employee report calls out UNC administration's 'toxic positivity'

Ruth Confer, a point-to-point driver, opens up the wheelchair ramp on her car on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Confer works under UNC to help people with disabilities or injuries move around campus, but since COVID-19 started, she has only had two students use her assistance.
Buy Photos Ruth Confer, a point-to-point driver, opens up the wheelchair ramp on her car on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Confer works under UNC to help people with disabilities or injuries move around campus, but since COVID-19 started, she has only had two students use her assistance.

The same day that the Employee Forum released a report urging UNC administrators to address the concerns and frustrations of employees due to COVID-19, the University released a video thanking its employees for Employee Appreciation Day on Oct. 28.

Some called it a timely coincidence. Others called it another instance of “toxic positivity.”

The report highlighted the effects that COVID-19 has had on employees and provided recommendations for campus leadership to address some of these concerns. It said staff members often feel left out of University communication and decision-making, and that their needs were an “afterthought” once students and faculty’s needs were addressed.

“Just as students are having their challenges, and just as faculty are having their challenges, staff are having their challenges as well, and they cannot be minimized,” Shayna Hill, chairperson of the Employee Forum, said.  

Results of the report

The report was compiled based on an open-ended survey conducted between Aug. 25 and Sept. 9. The survey was emailed to all UNC employees and received about 330 responses from faculty, staff and graduate workers. 

Jen DeNeal, a delegate of the Employee Forum and one of the writers of the report, said examples of already-received feedback were included in the survey email, which may or may not have affected responses.

In the survey, many employees shared that they wanted to see increased transparency, additional compensation and greater protections for vulnerable staff members from the administration — especially given the uncertainty and unknowns that started the year.

DeNeal said despite the challenges of this semester, many staff members responded with sentiments about their pride in the hard work they have been doing throughout the pandemic. 

“People need to be recognized for the incredible work that they were doing and continue to do,” Hill said. 

Some of this work includes additional COVID-19-related responsibilities, on top of normal expectations for everyday workloads.

“We’re doing all the grading, we’re working with students and now we're having to wear a lot more hats than just teachers,” Miranda Elston, an art history doctoral candidate and a member of the N.C. Workers Union UE Local 150, said. 

Elston said UE Local 150, which represents campus workers across all disciplines, has been pushing for the issues represented in the report for years. Increased compensation for graduate student workers and protections for housekeepers were highlighted in the report, but the union has also fought for better health care protections and sick leave. 

To help address some of these issues, the report recommended measures such as a transparent meeting with staff about the University’s budget, appropriate compensation for staff workers and clear communications targeted to specific staff concerns. 

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement that he was grateful for the feedback the Employee Forum provided in the report.

“Protecting the safety of our people and the jobs of our employees will continue to be our focus as we move forward with our spring planning,” Guskiewicz said in the statement. “We look forward to thoroughly reviewing the recommendations and continuing the conversation with the Employee Forum.”

'Toxic positivity'

One other key recommendation was centered directly around the actions of the administration in regards to "toxic positivity." The Employee Forum called for the University to be more upfront and honest with its communication about COVID-19, instead of being relentlessly positive. 

“I think toxic positivity is something that refuses to acknowledge the difficulties people are facing and just kind of pretends like everything is okay, and it's a normal year, and we're all going back to normal,” DeNeal said.

On the day the Employee Forum released the report, the University posted a video thanking employees for their hard work in honor of Employee Appreciation Day. In response to this, UNC history professor William Sturkey tweeted, “You just can’t make this stuff up."

Associate Director of Media Relations Leslie Minton said in an email that Employee Appreciation Day is celebrated annually, and that "it was even more important this semester to take a moment to thank Carolina employees for working so hard under strenuous conditions."

"I hope you will watch the video above and feel the heartfelt thanks and gratitude expressed by leaders across campus," Guskiewicz said in a message to faculty and staff on Oct. 28. 

Philip Hollingsworth, an administrative support specialist, said he believes the video’s release was poorly timed, but was indicative of the administration's tone-deafness to employee concerns.

Ben Fortun, a graduate student and teaching assistant, said he agreed the video was ineffective and did not properly address the issues presented by the report. 

“The toxic positivity is an attempt to make it look like the University is addressing the various grievances that different groups have, but it’s actually a therapeutic process for themselves to make it seem like they’re addressing the issues,” he said. “I see it as a giant smoke and mirrors.”

Hollingsworth said messages like this were frustrating because they delegitimize concerns and fears of employees that have not yet been addressed. 

“(The video) is really demoralizing. It showed that we say these things, and on the administrative end we get nothing,” he said. “It feels like we’re screaming at a brick wall.” 

Hill said while it is important to address, not minimize, the struggles of employees, the public doesn’t always see everything that the administration does behind the scenes to deal with problems like this.

“It's easy to make the assumption that here's a pretty video and nothing is happening behind the scenes,” she said. “What the public sees, and what is often going on in the background are two different things. There's a ton of work being done behind the scenes, a ton of work that a lot of people don't see. It needs to continue.”

Vice Chancellor for University Communications Joel Curran said in a statement that Guskiewicz has been listening to the concerns of students, faculty, staff and community members to guide the University’s steps. 

“Cautious optimism has always been part of our Carolina culture," Curran said in the statement. "The Chancellor knows our campus expects us to confront the many unique challenges brought about by the pandemic while delivering on our mission through hard work, boundless determination and a passionate enthusiasm to solve these problems." 

Both Fortun and Hollingsworth said this video is not the first instance of toxic positivity demonstrated by the University. Hollingsworth said he has noticed it from the University administration when addressing issues of graduate student compensation.

“All of this stuff is a real concern, and people are angry,” he said. “It’s the frustration of not addressing what’s really going on, but pretending everything is great to people who aren’t on campus.”

Elston said that moving forward, campus workers and employees want a seat at the table when it comes to the University’s decision making.

“There is mistrust, there is frustration," she said. "We feel completely silenced and sidelined. I think we're past their idea boards and forming committees, and doing talking groups. We want to see what they're going to do, and we want them to listen to our advice on how to actually implement things.”

Hollingsworth said to combat toxic positivity, the University should look to the Employee Forum report — and actually address the concerns. 

“That Employee Forum document has a very short list of actionable items, and I’d love for administration to start somewhere,” he said. “They need to support employees not just with a bagged breakfast one morning, but with financial compensation. People need to feed their families every day, not just on Employee Appreciation Day.” 

@hannahgracerose | @llaurmccarthy

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