After six months at home suffering from diabetes, Beverly White thought she would be going back to work at her job as a cleaning employe at American University shortly after Christmas.
Instead, she said yesterday, her first post-Christmas greeting in the mail was a letter from the university, informing her that she would be fired as of Jan. 7, along with 93 other cleaning service employes, in a budget-cutting move at the financially squeezed university. She said she had worked at the university for 15 years, the past four as a cleaning employe.
The university is replacing the employes by hiring a cleaning company, Unified Services Inc., whose contract will cost $250,000 a year less than American has been paying for its own cleaning employes, according to university officials.
A company official said the contract with AU is for about $800,000 a year for 18 months with a one-year renewal option.
The letter told the employes that the university would help them get a job with Unified or elsewhere.
However, a job with Unified could entail a 33 percent pay cut for most of the fired employes, and there will not be enough openings for all of them. While the cleaning employes say they generally are paid $6 an hour now, the pay at Unified is $4 an hour, a company official confirmed. An AU spokeswoman said the university does not disclose salaries.
Unified Services President Jerry Davis Jr. said perhaps 65 of the fired employes might be hired for the American University contract.
"If they will take the job . . . they will get first shot," Davis said, noting that his firm pays less than the university has.
"Can you see me telling the rent and grocery people, 'They cut my salary by a third, so can you cut my rent and food costs '?" said White, who has one child to support.
Employes who had worked for the university 15 or 20 years would have to start anew at Unified accruing vacation time, starting at one week a year after the first year of work, according to Davis and AU employes. Some also would work weekends, which they do not do now. Unlike university employes, Unified's workers are not covered by a retirement plan.
White said she was not eligible for welfare, food stamps or Medicaid while she was on disability leave, so she already has taken her own budget-slashing measures.
"Times are so hard, I'm living with my mother," she said.
Times have been hard for AU, as well, however. Enrollment was down 5 percent this year, meaning tuition revenue will be about $2 million less than planned for in the university's $65 million budget adopted last spring. In September, the university took a series of economy measures, including eliminating 50 of its 1,000 nonteaching staff positions, reducing the number of part-time faculty and cutting the number of students employed as security guards.
Marion Martin, a spokeswoman for AU, said the contracting out for cleaning services is a management trend being practiced by other universities as a way of saving money.
The timing of the firings right after Christmas was "very unfortunate," Martin said, but she explained that it was necessary to make the changeover during the semester break while the students are gone. "Everyone realizes it's a difficult time," she said.
But some at least would have preferred knowing before the holiday rather than after.
"I went into a hell of a debt for Christmas," said Leah Fenrick, an AU employe for two years. If she had known, she would have cut back her spending on gifts, she said.
Willie Atkinson, who has been a cleaning employe at the university for 14 years, said he already has been out this week looking for a job, but the prospects are not good. "I can't see anything now," he said.
The fired employes will receive severance pay through Jan. 26, the end of 30 days' notice for the layoffs, and they will be paid for any accrued annual leave but not remaining sick time, Martin said. Those who have been there full time for a year are vested in the university retirement plan and will not lose those benefits already earned, she said.
Union Local 25 had been trying for three months to organize the cleaning workers at American University, and union representative Charles E. McCollum said it will try to negotiate with Unified to put all of the fired employes back to work.
"The company should know they will have a fight on their hands if they don't put them all back to work," McCollum said, but he gave no details on what leverage the union might bring to bear.