Janitor rehired following dismissal controversy

Feb. 8, 2010, 12:02 a.m.

When Karina Reyes walked into the Terman Engineering Building at 11 p.m. on Jan. 18 to clean, she was gearing up for a normal night of work, no different than any other of her two years working for ABM Industries as a janitor at Stanford.

Reyes was vacuuming and disposing of trash in the laboratories when her cell phone’s battery ran out, so she decided to charge it in one Terman’s basement offices, plugging it into the computer of Lee Merrick, an information technology manager in the Office of Research Administration.

She left to continue her work; Terman’s recently installed video surveillance system captured Reyes’ stop on tape.

Twenty minutes later, two campus security officers arrived at Terman to investigate a case of potential data stealing; the following day, Reyes was suspended for three days from her job. Later that week, she was fired.

Now, Reyes is back into the job: on Feb. 4, ABM settled the dispute with her and a union representative and rehired her, but not before the events on the night of Jan. 18 kicked off a labor dispute case that rocked the campus chat lists and had student activists up in arms.

Stanford Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) took up Reyes’ case, as they have done in other labor disputes here since 1998.

According to Dan Weissman, a Ph.D. in physics and spokesperson for the activist group, ABM gave two reasons for firing Reyes. The first: that by charging her cell phone Reyes had “used” the computer, violating a company policy. Second: that Stanford requested that she be fired.

When ABM was confronted, Weissman said the subcontractor backtracked on the second claim, saying that Stanford actually did not make this request.

A spokesperson for ABM did not immediately return a request for comment last week.

Tom Sheehan, a professor of religious studies and chairman of the Faculty Coalition of Labor Rights at Stanford, said Reyes’ case was distinct from other labor issues with which SLAC has been involved because Reyes had admittedly made a “stupid mistake” by plugging in her phone to Merrick’s computer.

Though SLAC’s list of grievances against ABM is long, “in this case, Karina Reyes actually did commit a real foolish offense by charging her cell phone through the computers,” Sheehan said. “The danger’s that she might be downloading sensitive data.”

Sheehan said that heightened security had been added to Terman fairly recently amid growing faculty concerns that people were breaking into the offices to steal data. Terman is open around to the clock to students and faculty with key-card access.

Reyes–who said she is the sole breadwinner for her mother, ill brother and sister in Mexico–approached her tutor at Habla la Noche, the student-worker English tutoring program, for help when she was first suspended from her two-year job. Habla coordinator Adriana Campos ‘11 then e-mailed the labor coalition.

The group released a petition on Jan. 25 demanding that Reyes be rehired with back pay and pressing for Stanford to make it clear to ABM that the University wanted Reyes to keep her job.

The petition eventually gained 1,650 Stanford-affiliated signatures and was sent to Tom Cazale, an ABM human resources representative; Jose Gonzales, Reyes’s direct supervisor; Kent Edwards, ABM’s project manager; and Sam Steinhardt, Stanford’s interim director of Procurement, among others.

This was SLAC’s sixth campaign using an online petition since 2007.

“This is the most petition-centered campaign we’ve done, and the most successful petition in terms of getting a lot of signatures quickly,” Weissman said.

Dave Mitchell ‘09, a SLAC alumnus and contributor to the petition drive, said distribution involved signing people up in White Plaza, gathering online signatures and having Reyes’ coworkers push for an “on the ground” effort. Five other night-shift janitors helped pass out the petition on foot.

Sheehan also approached Merrick to write a letter to Gonzalez, Reyes’ supervisor. In the letter, Merrick asked that Reyes be transferred to cleaning a different corridor, but requested that she get her job back.

Under Stanford’s contractual agreement with ABM, the University takes a hands-off approach in dealing with internal ABM affairs, allowing the subcontractor to operate independently under the assumption that ABM will abide by the rules of its union, SEIU Local 1877 and other general labor laws.

ABM settled the dispute with Reyes and her union representative, and she was rehired on Feb. 4 at the same wage rate and benefits package effective before being laid off. She will be paid for five of the nine days she was out of work.

In an interview with The Daily, Reyes expressed gratitude to SLAC and Stanford students for their help. Reyes will officially thank students at a party put on by SLAC, set for Thursday at noon at El Centro Chicano.

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