Campus reacts to outsourced Mail Services’ new system

Students raise concerns about impact of transition on former mailroom staff as deliveries ramp up

By
Metro Editor
Thursday, September 4, 2014

While administrators highlighted the need for the University’s mail services to modernize, some students have questioned the outsourcing transition.

Since the University began outsourcing Mail Services jobs to employees from office technology company Ricoh USA last month, students, faculty and staff members have expressed doubts about the new system’s efficiency in the face of an influx of packages at the semester’s start, in addition to raising questions about the impact the staffing change will have on former Mail Services employees.

 

Reasons and reactions

The University decided in May to outsource its mailroom operations to Ricoh in response to surveys from the student body and an external review conducted by Ricoh and United Parcel Service this past year, wrote Beppie Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration, in a letter to the Undergraduate Council of Students made publicly available on the council’s Facebook page this summer. The complaints were not about employees’ performances, Huidekoper wrote, but about the need for the University’s mail services to modernize and improve.

Following the survey and review, the University received a proposal from Ricoh to contract with the company to run Mail Services, Huidekoper wrote.

Two unionized Mail Services employees are continuing to work in the mailroom and two others obtained jobs with Ricoh, while a couple of employees have retired and several more continue to look for work but want to return to the mailroom, said Karen McAninch ’74, the union representative for many University workers, who represents the retained Mail Services employees.

One of the employees who had originally been laid off by the University was recently offered another job at the University not in Mail Services, said a worker who requested anonymity out of concern of retribution for speaking publicly.

Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations, and Elizabeth Gentry, assistant vice president of financial and administrative services, said they heard the employees who still work in the mailroom are satisfied. Gentry said the retained employees “have been contributing a lot” to the operations.

But some sources interviewed said Mail Services workers have not experienced an easy transition into Ricoh’s system. One Mail Services worker, who has several years of experience in the mailroom, temporarily lost card swipe access to J. Walter Wilson and was prohibited from working overtime and accessing aspects of Ricoh’s new system, McAninch said.

And while administrators said outsourcing mailroom operations would lead to better technology and faster service, students have experienced long lines this week as Ricoh employees adapt to a new system and campus, multiple sources said.

The Ricoh employees staffing the mailroom are mostly temporary rather than permanent, McAninch said. Their lack of familiarity with the campus could cause students to experience lower-quality service, she added.

The University will continue to work with former Mail Services employees to help them find new work and will take comments from students and faculty members into consideration, Quinn said, asking for patience from the community during the transition.

 

The mailroom makeover

Several of the changes implemented since Ricoh began operating in the mailroom addressed issues that Mail Services employees had repeatedly raised for a while, said Felix Tettey ’15, who worked in the mailroom from summer 2011 through last spring.

The UPS overflow package site that previously operated out of a basement in Graduate Center E during the first weeks of school has been moved to the space in Alumnae Hall formerly occupied by the Gate. Mail Services employees have long expressed concerns about Grad Center’s usage for UPS services due to electricity shortages and a lack of storage space but were told by the University there were no other spaces available for the operation.

Gentry said she thought the Grad Center site “was quite dangerous”  for students because of its long driveway and the new space in Alumnae Hall will be available until Oct. 10, when the influx of packages will likely start to decrease. All package deliveries will then be moved back to J. Walter Wilson, which might include “reconfiguration” of the pickup windows, she said.

The new system begins with students swiping into a kiosk to put them in a queue before presenting their Brown ID and retrieving their package in order to prevent long lines at the counter, Gentry said, adding that the average time for students to receive packages was two minutes.

But Maahika Srinivasan ’15, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, said she had heard “nothing but negative” reactions from students about their mailroom experiences over the past several days. Though students have recognized the technological improvements, many have complained to her about the amount of time and confusion involved in retrieving packages.

Since Ricoh closed mailroom operations on Labor Day, rather than having Mail Services remain open as in the past, employees were behind schedule and overwhelmed by the amount of deliveries Tuesday, the anonymous worker told The Herald, which led to managers being called downstairs and fielding many complaints from students.

“We had a couple of small bumps in the road” on Tuesday, Gentry said, though she added that she felt that as the week has progressed, the problems have been minimized.

 

Student involvement

In early July, Student Labor Alliance members received an email from McAninch encouraging them to get involved in direct action, said Irene Rojas-Carroll ’15, an SLA member. Student activists focused on the new contract initiated with Ricoh and the treatment of non-unionized Mail Services workers released from their jobs, Rojas-Carroll said.

The group then circulated a petition on social media, sent letters to the administration and organized a protest on campus in solidarity with Mail Services employees this summer.

One of the concerns from students about the new changes in Mail Services was the lack of communication to students from administrators, which prompted several students to meet with the administration over the summer, said Justice Gaines ’16, who helped organize and attended the protest.

Tettey was told in the spring that he could no longer hold his work-study position because there was not enough money in the budget, but he was not informed of the switch until after the fact. He said the University’s lack of a campus-wide announcement suggests something “dubious” about its actions.

Gaines, Tettey and Srinivasan said they met with Huidekoper, Gentry and a representative from the Human Resources Department over the summer to talk about the University’s decision and its impact on workers and students.

But it became clear in the meeting that administrators had already finalized the outsourcing plan, Srinivasan said.

The letter to UCS has been the University’s only official communication about the mailroom changes so far, though students are still interested in getting more information, Gaines said.

Srinivasan said UCS will continue to function as a “channel of communication” between concerned students and the administration about the changes, particularly if reactions to the mailroom operations remain negative.

 

Campus connections

Mail Services employees do not solely run the mailroom but serve as the first point of contact for many people unfamiliar with Brown’s campus because of J. Walter Wilson’s central location, Tettey said. He added that new students, parents or visitors frequently ask Mail Services employees for directions.

It is challenging to balance recognizing the role of Mail Services employees as part of the Brown community and ensuring that students get the most efficient service, Srinivasan said.

 

-With additional reporting by Molly Schulson

  • ’15

    BDH-speak: “students, faculty and staff members have expressed doubts about the new system’s efficiency”

    Translation: one student, zero faculty, one union representative, and one aggrieved worker.

    There isn’t a single direct account from a student! I’d expect better from a section editor.

  • Impudence

    One of the two companies that University administration relied upon for an assessment of Mail Room operations was the same company that took the outsourced contract? How did that conversation go? “Oh yeah, your mail room is a mess. You should really outsource those operations. And, by sheer coincidence, we might be able to help you with that!”