The Chronicle of Higher Education: Firing of Workers Who Failed to Provide Documents Divides Pomona College

From The Chronicle of Higher Education: Link to original article


When Pomona College fired 17 employees in December because they could not prove they were in the United States legally, it created a divisive controversy on the campus at the same time that it raised a tricky question: How can a college best handle obeying a law that many students and faculty members disagree with?

Even David Oxtoby, Pomona’s president, has called the situation at the Claremont, Calif., institution ironic, given the college’s commitment to promoting Latino culture and diversity on campus. And while Mr. Oxtoby and members of Pomona’s Board of Trustees have said their hands were tied in the matter, some students and faculty members think the liberal-arts college, one of the wealthiest in the United States, could have handled the situation with more respect for the employees.

The controversy has its roots in a letter sent to the Board of Trustees last spring by a Pomona employee whom the college has not identified publicly. According to Pomona’s spokeswoman, Cynthia Peters, the letter said Mr. Oxtoby’s administration had a policy of not seeking proper work documentation from college employees, and that the college did not verify employee documentation as required by law.

Paul S. Efron, chairman of Pomona’s Board of Trustees and a director at Goldman Sachs, took the complaint to the board’s audit committee, which turned the case over to Sidley Austin, a corporate law firm. After a review, Sidley Austin flagged 84 “deficient” employee files, and on November 11 the college asked those workers to meet with its human-resources department and get their paperwork in order. Ultimately 17 employees, 16 of whom were food-service workers, could not provide proper documentation and were fired by December 2.

Protests and Arrests

The administration’s actions elicited a heated backlash on the campus throughout the final weeks of the fall semester, with protesters camping in tents outside the college’s administration building, holding rallies, and boycotting the college’s dining halls. During one event, 15 students and faculty members got themselves arrested for blocking an intersection as a symbolic act recognizing the 17 workers who were fired.

Isabel Juarez, a junior at Pomona, was one of four students who went on a hunger strike in solidarity with the terminated workers. She says many students are still upset over the firings.

“We feel like family with the workers because we come from Latin American backgrounds, and we celebrate that background,” she says. “Treating the workers within the dining hall badly affects us as well.”

Christian Torres, one of the food-service employees who lost his job in December, has become the most vocal of the former employees. In addition to rallying alongside students and speaking at events, Mr. Torres met with Mr. Oxtoby and Mr. Efron to make his case. He says the December 1 deadline the college gave the employees under investigation was arbitrary, and did not allow them enough time to get their paperwork in order.

“As soon as we got this letter, everybody starts to freak out because this kind of document, you’re not going to fix it in two or three days,” Mr. Torres says. “I feel very disappointed, very impotent.”

But Mr. Oxtoby says those employees who had legitimate work documentation were able to resolve their problems in a few days. Workers who were in the United States illegally, he says, would not have been able to clear up the paperwork problems no matter how long the college gave them.

“It wouldn’t have changed anything, unfortunately,” Mr. Oxtoby says.

Mr. Torres, who had worked at Pomona as a cook since 2005, says he is frustrated at what he sees as a change in the rules. While he declines to answer questions about his immigration status, he says Pomona did not have any problems with his documentation when it hired him. Now unemployed, he says he may reapply for his job by the new June deadline the college has set for former employees to resubmit their documents.

Members of the Pomona community have raised more than $20,000 in cash, gift certificates, food, and gifts for the families of the former employees, according to Ms. Peters. Still, one professor called the donations a Band-Aid solution to the deeper problem of the workers who have lost their livelihoods.

Mr. Torres said he would like to stay in the area even though he has no immediate family there—both of his parents worked as cooks at Pomona up until three years ago, when they moved back to Mexico.

‘Hyper Legality’?

Despite the backlash, Mr. Oxtoby says he wouldn’t have handled anything differently, noting that the college has provided severance pay to the 17 employees and continued their benefits through the end of June.

“We’re trying to be supportive without breaking the law,” he says. “It’s really ironic. … This is the last thing we would have wanted.”

But Erin Runions, an associate professor of religious studies, says turning the case over to a law firm was an extreme measure. She says the college should have handled the matter in-house.

“That is the kind of hyper vigilance and hyper legality that did not need to happen. People did not need to lose their jobs,” Ms. Runions says. “There needs to be some kind of attention to the fact that the law is interpretable and deliberately a little murky in Southern California.”

Experts say overlooking work-documentation “deficiencies” is a fact of life for many California employers. A 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that California had the most illegal immigrant workers of any state in 2008.

Unionization at Issue

One sticking point in the controversy at Pomona was the timing of the firings, which came during a two-year union drive by Workers For Justice, an organization of Pomona’s dining-hall workers that joined forces with Unite Here Local 11, a union representing food-service workers in the Los Angeles area. Some former employees see the college’s actions as a union-busting tactic, but Mr. Oxtoby says the unionization efforts in no way influenced the college’s decision to investigate the original complaint.

Some professors, however, cite a string of cases in which employers have used immigration raids to threaten employees who are trying to unionize. “It’s hard to know what the intentions were,” Ms. Runions says of Pomona’s actions, “but the effect was union busting. That’s a fine distinction to make, but it’s odd to me that the governance of the college would not have thought of the implications for the union.”

Victor Silverman, who chairs Pomona’s history department, says companies have long used immigration status to suppress employees’ attempts to unionize. “While there’s much criticism of colleges and universities as being bastions of liberalism, they actually behave like conservative employers in this regard,” he says.

After the firings at Pomona, a human-resources employee at neighboring Scripps College took it upon herself to ask seven employees to fill out new immigration-status forms. But when the news reached the desk of President Lori Bettison-Varga of Scripps, she quickly nixed the investigation and sent a memorandum to faculty and staff members assuring them that there was no need for the college to look into the matter.

She explained that Scripps personnel records from 1986 to 1998 were archived at the Claremont University Consortium, which is why the human-resources department was not able to locate the seven employees’ information in on-campus files.

“We wanted to make sure that our employees knew that we were confident that all of the documents were collected and available,” Ms. Bettison-Varga says. “Clearly the sensitive timing of that caused me to send the e-mail out, just to make sure everybody knew that this was not a similar situation at all.”

A Divided Faculty

While Pomona students and the former employees have taken the most vocal role in protesting the college’s actions, faculty members worry that the firings have threatened the fabric of the college’s community.

Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of history and Latin American studies, says Pomona’s actions seemed to be “at odds with its own principles and its own views.” The moves “created suspicion, particularly for Latino students and for the Latino community, but also for the larger immigrant community.”

Pardis Mahdavi, an associate professor of anthropology, says that despite taking issue with the firings, some faculty have come to understand the predicament Mr. Oxtoby faced. Still, she says the college’s actions have led to a cultural shift on campus. “The troubling outcome is that it has divided our faculty,” Ms. Mahdavi says.

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