“Done wrong by EKU” has become a meme across campus this school year. Late to class because you couldn’t find a parking spot? “Done wrong by EKU.” Taking a class where the professor started lecturing on the first day? “Done wrong by EKU.” But the intent behind the meme is no laughing matter — in fact, it was an active protest again major changes EKU placed upon the custodial staff while the students making memes were enjoying their summer away from campus.
As early as the beginning of the spring semester, custodian Jerry Donahue had heard rumors that his job would be contracted out to Aramark, a company focused on food, facilities and uniform services that is already known at EKU as the primary source for catering.
Due to the ever-changing climate in higher education since Matt Bevin’s tenure as governor started, EKU had been searching for any possible ways to lessen funds and save money. After requesting proposals from possible third-party vendors as early as September of 2016, the university officially awarded custodial contracts to Aramark — a change that is saving EKU $5 million dollars according to a message sent on behalf of Barry Poynter, Vice President for Finance and Administration.
This change is in addition to the suspending of multiple programs (including humanities, French, and theatre majors) approved by the Board of Regents on December 5, 2016.
Donahue, who had worked at EKU for 10 years, said he always believed Aramark would receive the contracts. He was not angry with the change, he said, but with how it happened.
“I hadn’t been shocked,” Donahue said. “I felt EKU had done us dirty by kicking us out like we weren’t worth nothing.”
According to Donahue, the staff was notified of the changes in June, and given until the end of the month to reapply for their position or find a new job. And though the positions they reapplied for paid more, custodians lost many of the benefits they previously held.
“I liked Eastern because it had good benefits and it was better to work around,” Donahue said. “It’s almost like a slap in the face.”
Previously, Donahue said custodians received spring, fall and Christmas breaks, sick days, vacation time and personal days. Now, he said custodians are only guaranteed three personal days at the start, and must be employed for over a year to receive vacation and personal days. Custodians also lost state retirement after losing their positions at a public university.
“I’d like to know why they pushed us out like [they did] when we was (sic) the lowest paid people,” Donahue said. “Why didn’t they put in the contract to keep some of our benefits like the state retirement?”
To express his anger, Donahue began protesting during his lunch break. At first, he would just hold a sign. Later, though, he would both hold his sign and wear signs to let everyone know his opinions.
“I’d done what I had to do,” Donahue said. “I stood up for all of us — I figured when I was up there that I stood up for the whole custodial staff.”
While Donahue was the only custodial member to protest on campus, he said many of his coworkers told him they were with him.
“About everybody that comes up to me says, ‘We respect you Jerry,’” Donahue said.
After garnering attention from employees, students and locals, Donahue said he did finally get the chance to express his grievances with President Benson.
“I know it’s a done deal, I told Benson,” Donahue said. “He said he was sorry, and that they had to cut the budget — that they’d done all they could do.”
Though Donahue has stopped protesting because he believes his message has been sent, he said he still believes there had to be another way to fix budget issues. One resolution, he said, was looking into the salaries of EKU’s administration.
“I felt they should’ve went to the higher up people who get paid the most,” Donahue said.