After they weren’t paid for time missed due to Hurricane Irma, OPS employees and the ACLC created a fully fledged campaign to pressure UF for better working conditions.

Illustration by Johnny Quach.

After Christa Ochoa graduated college in 2013, she got a job entering data in UF’s Department of Pathology as an Other Personnel Services (OPS) employee, a type of hourly, at-will employee at public institutions across the state.

But Ochoa’s wages were low. There was a possibility she could be promoted to a Technical, Executive, Administrative and Managerial Support (TEAMS) position, which came with benefits, but after six months and no promotion, Ochoa left her job.

Ochoa’s story is common, but it’s not among the worst. After Hurricane Irma, some OPS employees went into credit card debt or nearly lost their apartments because they couldn’t pay rent, according to a Jan. 28 report released by the Alachua County Labor Coalition, a group of individuals, unions and worker-friendly organizations.

“Over a weeks worth of wages and zero compensation led me to lose my residence and become homeless,” one anonymous employee told the coalition in the report.

Soon it became clear that these post-hurricane grievances were signs of larger exploitation.

The report is based on anonymous survey responses from 525 employees and is part of an employee-led campaign by the ACLC to improve OPS working conditions at UF. As part of this campaign, the ACLC is looking to re-categorize all long-term OPS workers as TEAMS employees, a UF classification that receives benefits and paid leave.

OPS employment is provided for in Florida law and work at public institutions across the state, not just at UF. OPS employees are not eligible for paid leave because Fla. Statue 110.31 stipulates that, “unless specifically provided by law, other-personal-services employees are not eligible for any form of paid leave.”

“I’ve never seen it before, but there is a state statute that mandates second-class employment,” said Jeremiah Tattersall, lead organizer for the ACLC. “This is ridiculous. There is a state law that an entire class of employees are, by statute, not allowed to have benefits.”

OPS workers are commonly thought to be temporary positions, typically held by college students. The Florida Department of Management Services describes OPS employment as a type of “employee/ employer relationship used solely for accomplishing short-term or intermittent tasks.”

Ochoa said this perception isn’t accurate.

“People work for years as OPS,” she said. “I feel they’re treated as regular full-time employees, but aren’t given the benefits.”

The ACLC’s report backs her up: 51 percent of OPS employees aren’t students. Their research shows the median

“The only way we see OPS employees getting power is if we elect a worker-friendly governor and board.”

non-student, hourly OPS worker at UF is a 29- year- old who has occupied their position for 4 years.

UF is not the only state institution to use OPS workers. After Hurricane Irma, the Alachua County School Board initially did not compensate its OPS employees. It was only after an internal discussion did the superintendent agree to do so, said Jason Fults, co-chair of the ACLC.

Santa Fe College approved administrative leave for all their employees, including temporary ones.

“The University of Florida is the flagship university for the state and a multi-billion dollar economic driver for the state, and it pinches pennies on essential employees,” said Drew Wilson, an OPS employee in web development.

UF has its own personnel employee classification called TEAMS. Established in 2003, most TEAMS employees receive benefits, paid vacation, sick leave and job security through yearly or six-month contracts, according to a UF Office of Human Resources memo. The only difference between TEAMS and OPS is if you operate under the university’s policies or the state’s.

Employees at UF often jump between the two classifications. Wilson was initially a TEAMS employee before he was given an ultimatum: remain as a TEAMS employee and take a pay cut, or change to an OPS position without job security. He called it a “kind of Sophie’s Choice.” When Wilson made the switch, he was laid-off.

In response to the campaign, Jodi Gentry, vice president of Human Resources at UF, wrote in an email the university is currently reviewing its OPS hiring practices.

Yet Tattersall said the UF administration is hesitant to directly engage with the ACLC on this issue.
“It’s been deflect, deny, delay,” he said. “That’s mainly their effort there.”

Tattersall points out the inconsistency between members of the UF community — who are quick to agree OPS workers are mistreated — and the hesitancy of the administration. In early February, Paul Ortiz, an associate professor of history, presented a resolution to the faculty senate infrastructure committee to transition the status of long-term OPS workers to TEAMS.

The campaign to improve OPS working conditions appears to be indicative of a greater malady affecting all of Florida: labor rights.

Florida is a right-to-work state, meaning that workers cannot be forced to join a union as a condition of their employment. According to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, these laws hurt union membership, weakening employees’ abilities to bargain for better working conditions.

Fults said the only way OPS employees will receive just compensation is if Florida’s labor laws, including the statute that provides for OPS employment, change. These laws are reflected in UF’s Board of Trustees, which is appointed by Gov. Rick Scott.

“The only way we see OPS employees getting power is if we elect a worker-friendly governor and board,” he said. •