By Amelia Leaphart
At the beginning of the pandemic, SPO staff continued working without their student employees, forwarding packages to students’ homes, sending paychecks, and processing mail for faculty and staff on-campus. Now, the SPO has seen an increase in the amount of packages they handle, and some employees have expressed frustration at being overworked, overcrowded, and underappreciated.
Furthermore, it has been learned that SPO staff members are uncomfortable talking to the Purple about these issues for fear of retribution.
Sam McNair, director of business services, said, “As I understand it, the University has a longstanding policy managing media relations, including The Purple. As division director, it is my responsibility to ensure that managers and staff are compliant with University policies. The staff was not specifically instructed not to speak to The Purple, but to follow University and department guidelines before doing so.”
Ellie Robinson (C’23), a student employee at the SPO, who recently wrote an opinion piece for The Purple, described the current situation at the SPO as a “mess.”
Staffing is a major factor leading to the SPO’s unprecedented backlog. Last semester the SPO lost one part-time and one full-time employee, and they haven’t received a replacement for the full-time employee, and instead added a part-time worker.
“We knew coming into this year it would be bad because nobody’s allowed to leave campus and have to order stuff they normally wouldn’t order,” Robinson said. “One of the big problems is shipping in huge boxes. Last year we could handle it a little bit better, but this year is ridiculous.”
Kadie Hicks (C’21) has been working at the SPO as a work-study student since her freshman year. For this semester, she arrived two weeks early and worked as a full-time employee to help the SPO prepare for the semester. She cited this year as her first time working with the same full-time staff, as full-time staff members have changed frequently.
“I think we’ve had six or seven staffing changes since I was a freshman,” Hicks said.
Backups began before the start of the academic year, when many students who live far away shipped necessary items ahead of time. According to Robinson, the SPO’s backup timeline points to students ordering before the start of the school-year, to ordering textbooks (as Amazon is usually cheaper than the bookstore), to Shake Day supplies, and now is “just a bunch of random stuff.”
Robinson cites over-packaging as another issue. “Someone has the ability to order one pencil from Amazon, and it could arrive in a twelve by eight envelope,” she said.
“The volume we can’t really control, because it is purely up to the folks ordering it,” Emerson Cobbs (C’21), who works at the SPO, said. “It’s a matter of appreciation, I think, and just some sort of positive attention. Their bosses are quite stingy, very stingy… and you know, I think the University of the South, if they don’t have some serious changes to the way that they’ve been treating staff… they’re really going to start having some labor problems in the next generation or two.”
Hicks also highlighted the issues facing SPO employees. “People probably don’t respect the workers as much as they could,” she said. “Some of that could be because they don’t know us. It is typical to have difficult days where people are rude or disrespectful because they don’t understand how the SPO works.”
Hicks also noticed a shift in attitude among SPO workers during her four years.
“It used to be a more upbeat, happy place to work. Now, maybe not so much. There’s more negative energy going around,” Hicks said.
Hicks also observed that the full-time staff “seem pretty unhappy. I don’t think they feel heard by the university or by each other. That can lead to a pretty bad work environment.”
The SPO has been getting overcrowded for years, but according to Robinson they now have packages stacked over their heads, which could lead to injury.
This year, the SPO abandoned the student PO boxes and now processes mail along with packages.
“This saves us so much time, but it’s a learning curve. People have been coming up and asking for their PO box number, and I’ve had to explain that when they get a letter they’ll get an email,” Robinson said.
The SPO also added the “parcel locker” system, which gives students a valid code to open a locker to receive their mail for the next 48 hours.
“They look like a really good idea on paper,” Robinson said, “but they don’t always send emails out. During the first week of school, the parcel lockers locked up on Tuesday and we couldn’t get into them until Thursday afternoon. There was nothing we could do.”
According to those with knowledge of the SPO, the new system constantly breaks down. For one day several weeks ago, emails were not sent out to students with packages at all. SPO staff could not figure out why nor could they get in touch with the system. This malfunction exacerbated the backlog and already overrun shelves and buckets.
SPO staff, with the exception of students, have only been tested once for COVID-19. The SPO staff interacts with almost every member of the Sewanee community, some of whom commute to campus.
Amazon packages have been a source of many problems. Once the SPO didn’t receive a shipment of Amazon packages until 3:55 p.m. when they were scheduled to arrive at 7:00 a.m. in order to allow time to transport them from the downtown Sewanee post office to the SPO. This error led to 300 packages they could not run because there was nowhere to put them.
McNair said that the University sent additional staff to the SPO recently, comprising a temporary employee for the semester and upgrading a part-time employee to full-time status.
McNair said plans have started with the public health officials to repeat COVID-19 testing for staff. He highlighted how changes to the SPO setup, including the new line outside of Pub, were implemented to promote social distancing outside while people wait on their packages. McNair acknowledged that the space is “cramped” and that the space was built when students mainly received letters instead of packages.
McNair said he remains in regular contact with Johnny Hughes, SPO manager, and occasional contact with other staff members. Furthermore, he has someone from his office conduct daily visits multiple times a day to ensure adequate staffing and resources. As a point of positivity, McNair underlines how, as of September 23, 2020, there has been a gradual reduction in packages and long lines have largely disintegrated.
Robinson emphasized that if the SPO had more space, they could function better. Problems in the SPO, according to Robinson, don’t stem from a “lack of trying,” but boil down to how the space is not adequate for the amount of packages they receive.
Since Robinson’s opinion piece for The Purple, Hicks has not seen any improvements in the SPO, except that their superior visits the SPO more often.
Hicks said, “I think the [lack of space] has always been a problem. We get more packages than anyone knows what to do with. With COVID, social distancing in that space is physically impossible. There is just not enough room, especially considering how many workers we now have to have at one time in order to get the line down. If someone were to get [COVID] we would all have to quarantine.”
Currently, there is no reason for optimism for the SPO moving to a larger space, as plans have been drawn up in past years and have repeatedly dissolved.
McNair confirmed that there are no current plans to relocate the SPO.