Sitting in the library of St. Bede’s Episcopal Chapel on campus on Tuesday evening, Betty Asbury, known to many as “Miss Betty,” started to cry.
“Lord, I done lost my job,” she said. “What am I to do? I done lost everything.”
Asbury was dismissed on Oct. 10, the day after a man walked past her cashier post in the Hecht/Stanford Dining Hall without paying. She believes the man, who was not a student, works at the BankUnited Center.
Chartwells, the national company in charge of most food service at the University of Miami, employed Asbury – a single mother with 15 years of cashier experience in Miami – two years ago.
Asbury said she didn’t see the man walk past her because she was ringing up the customer who walked in with him. When her manager and supervisor called Asbury into the office the next day, she told them it was a mistake.
“I said, ‘You know, I apologize. It was a human mistake and I overlooked someone who went through without paying. I really love my job, and I want to keep my job – write me up and I’ll make sure it won’t happen again,’” she said.
Entry for breakfast would have cost the man $6.80.
According to Asbury, she was never written up in the past, and she received the highest evaluation in the Hecht/Stanford Dining Hall last year. In August, her pay increased to $9.58 an hour to reflect her good performance.
However, it still takes two paychecks for Asbury to pay her mortgage, and she lives alone.
“Just last week, another worker told me that the University of Miami is a beautiful place and it should be treated as such by all the employers and employees,” senior Dylan Beasley said. “Miss Betty was one of the reasons why this campus was beautiful, and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students can attest to that.”
For several days, Asbury tried to contact Leland Rapport, the resident district manager of Chartwells, to appeal her dismissal.
According to Asbury, Rapport returned her calls on Tuesday and told her he learned that the man who walked past her had gone straight to the bathroom – but that they couldn’t reverse the decision.
“It’s a voice I don’t have,” Asbury said. “None of us Chartwells employees have a voice. If it happened to me, it can happen to somebody else.”
After declining several opportunities to comment on its decision, Chartwells released a statement. Among the questions asked and left unanswered: Why is this is an offense that warrants dismissal?
“Due to privacy concerns and confidentiality laws, we are not at liberty to discuss or comment upon specific associates or issues surrounding their employment,” the statement read. “Employment decisions are based on established policies and procedures, and applicable state and federal employment laws.”
Chartwells employees are at-will employees, which means the company can break the employment contract without liability.
Kenneth Casebeer, a professor at the UM School of Law, said Chartwells can legally dismiss employees for “good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.”
“It’s a very pro-employer rule that Florida has reiterated again and again, and for the reason that it promotes certainty of business costs,” said Casebeer, who has a background in employment law. “Of course, if an employer can walk away from an employment contract at any time, then they don’t have any costs associated with getting rid of employees or having to plan for any kind of due process.”
Giving employees a voice
Some believe that the decision was unjust, regardless of its legality.
“It’s legal, but it’s not moral,” said Philipp Schwind, a fifth-year graduate student of philosophy. “It’s not what we stand up for.”
Schwind started a petition on change.org at 1 a.m. after he learned of Asbury’s dismissal. By 2 p.m. the next day, it had nearly 500 signatures.
“The message goes to Chartwells, and the message is clear: We don’t accept that members of our community are treated this way,” Schwind said.
As of 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, there were 1,438 signatures and 55 personal statements.
Schwind believes the petition will make a difference.
“This is not just about Betty,” he said. “It’s about us – who we are and what kind of community we want to live in.”
Students for a New Democracy (STAND) members and other students are planning events during the next three weeks to push for Asbury’s reinstatement. Up-to-date information can be found on the Facebook group “Bring Betty Back.”
“We hope to make an example out of Miss Betty’s situation and what can be done – the power that students do have in their university, the power that workers can have, and that they should have,” said senior Carmen Rodriguez, a STAND member.
Precedent has been set
Students have gone up in arms about the firing of a Chartwells employee in the past.
In 2007, for instance, two workers were dismissed for missing work without calling the Chartwells hotline. Alan Fish, UM’s vice president for business services at the time, said the university should not have a zero-tolerance policy. The two workers were allowed to return to work in accordance with the three-warning plan that was established.
Later, in 2011, Chartwells dismissed Sbarros workers when the campus location closed, but gave no guarantee that positions would be available the next fall. After STAND collected 135 petitions, the employees were reinstated for the semester.
“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be possible for Chartwells to bring Betty back,” Schwind said. “It has been done various times in the past. And why should she be treated differently?”
Rapport declined to comment after six emails and phone calls.
Senior Javier Figueroa, a STAND member, believes this incident represents a larger problem.
“This is symptomatic of a greater issue the workers face here, which is that management doesn’t pay attention to their voice,” he said. “It goes beyond Miss Betty losing her job; it goes beyond every single Chartwells worker having no job security and having to face that every single day.”
The Chartwells statement also addressed its policy about how the company treats its employees.
“While Chartwells is not at liberty to discuss the subject situation, Chartwells remains steadfast that it has and will continue to treat all associates fairly,” the statement read.
Chartwells workers have tried to form a union in the past, though one does not currently exist.
“I really appreciate y’all standing behind me and helping me – going out the way – and I know it’s love in here, and all about ‘round here,” Asbury said, a hand on her chest. “I lost my job – I lost love and family here on campus. I lost a family.”