Florida Polytechnic ordered to rehire laid-off employees who talked union

Florida Poly let go of employees, including its only mental health counselor, because of anti-union bias, a state report ruled..  [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (20180]
Florida Poly let go of employees, including its only mental health counselor, because of anti-union bias, a state report ruled.. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (20180]
Published July 26, 2019

A state commission determined this week that Florida Polytechnic University administrators unjustly laid off employees because of anti-union bias.

The United Faculty of Florida union members who lost their jobs spoke up about university problems or participated in collective bargaining. Later they were told their positions were being restructured or eliminated entirely.

The Public Employees Relations Commission ruled that Florida Polytechnic needs to rehire three employees let go with back pay and cease from making faculty changes without bargaining with the union, United Faculty of Florida, first. It also said the university couldn't continue to discourage membership in a union.

University spokeswoman Maggie Mariucci said the university is reviewing the order and considering the next steps.

One former employee ordered to be reinstated was the university's only mental health counselor, Casey Fox. When she was laid off in June of last year, officials told her it was because the counseling system was being fully contracted out to a service provider, BayCare, that they had before used in tandem with her services.

A month after her departure, 21-year-old student Kevin Masculine killed himself on campus.

"I don't know if I'll ever feel justice," Fox said. "Too much was lost. We've had students lose their life, we've had students leave the school."

Fox said she felt validated by the outcome of the report but still does not plan to return to campus, where she feels her work wasn't valued. In the year since she was laid off, Fox has been working out of the state at a different university.

"Florida Poly just does not put the best interest of the students first," she said.

After Masculine's death, engineering professor Christina Drake sent an email to the state's higher education leader, Chancellor Marshall Criser, saying it was likely preventable. Earlier, she had gone to the Board of Governors and warned that the sharp transition could harm students.

Florida Poly President Randy Avent and provost Terry Parker met with a board of trustees member to talk about the email. During the meeting, Avent said he "had enough of it" and would "put a stop to it," according to the commission's report.

Avent had earlier sent a letter to faculty saying he didn't think unions were "either innovative or agile," and Parker had said he would prefer to work without a union in place, according to a report from the commission's hearing officer.

Later, Drake's contract wasn't renewed. She is one of the employees ordered to be reinstated, along with the university's sole librarian, Kate Bernard, who was laid off.

Drake plans to return to help hold the school accountable, she said. She is skeptical that the university will follow through with the order, because she said officials blatantly disregarded the law and employee rights before.

For her, the potential awkwardness of returning is less important than her mission to help students. She said when faculty like herself spoke up about the school and structural changes they hoped to see, administrators took it as if they were on offense against the school.

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"It wasn't about attacking the university, it was about protecting students," she said.

Director of Communications Lydia Guzmán disagreed and said student success is the utmost priority for every person at Florida Polytech. The school's counsel is still reviewing the order to see what the best option moving forward is.

As a member of Florida Poly's first class, alumnus Rhodes Conover said it was disappointing for him to feel like the university wasn't a "big team" like they had been told.

Conover, who graduated in 2018, organized students to speak with administrators about the faculty changes.

"We were taught and told we would help build this culture," he said. "We only had that voice when we agreed with them.''

Contact Romy Ellenbogen at Follow @Romyellenbogen.