Emails show Georgia dorm contractor cut maintenance

Emails obtained by a campus workers’ group show that a contractor who runs dormitories at eight public universities in Georgia laid-off workers and cut back on maintenance over the summer, raising questions about whether the company was violating its contract with the University System of Georgia at the same time it was complaining of financial stress.

The United Campus Workers of Georgia, a union that seeks to represent employees on all 26 public campuses in Georgia, says the system’s struggle with Rhode Island-based Corvias shows the pitfalls of privatizing operations such as residence halls. Part of the Communication Workers of America, the union wants the system to avoid any future privatization deals, which would help guarantee jobs for university employees in the future.

"This scheme has highlighted the dangers of privatization of public goods," the union wrote in a statement Wednesday. "By contracting out dorm ownership and operations to a private company for a 65-year deal, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents have put the well-being of students and workers in the hands of a private, for-profit enterprise."

The system says it and Corvias "are in constant communication to ensure that USG students’ housing experiences are as contracted for in the partnership agreements."

Corvias did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The system agreed to lease the dorms to Corvias for 65 years starting in 2014. The universities still own the land and buildings, but Corvias is in charge of operations and upkeep, borrowing $540 million to finance upgrades. Corvias gets the rent in return.

Corvias manages dorms at Augusta University, College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick, Columbus State University, Dalton State College, East Georgia State College in Swainsboro, Georgia Southern University in Savannah, Georgia State University in Atlanta and the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.

The pandemic has strained the arrangement, with universities sending students home last spring and paying refunds later recouped from federal funds. Corvias sent the University System of Georgia a much-publicized letter in May stating regents did "not have the unilateral right" to limit students or reduce fees because of a shortened semester. Corvias also argued that regents shouldn’t cut the number of beds per room to limit density, arguing capacity reductions in common spaces would be enough to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

That letter, along with additional reporting suggesting Corvias was pressuring Wayne State University in Michigan, prompted inquiries from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Democrats.

The additional correspondence obtained by the union shows Corvias cut staff sharply, reduced maintenance and tried to get the system to agree to an unusual bailout plan, prompting concern by system leadership and individual universities.

In May, Corvias said it would furlough 26 of 57 housing staff on seven campuses over the summer. Later, Corvias moved to lay off all but nine employees — one per university — prompting Executive Vice Chancellor for Strategy and Fiscal Affairs Tracey Cook to write an angry letter warning Corvias that it was breaching its contract with the university system by cutting its operating budget by 24%.

"Corvias has clearly indicated based on this proposed budget, recent staff reductions, and statements that it has no intent to meet its contractual obligations...," Cook wrote Aug. 6. "Accordingly, BOR must be equally as clear to Corvias of its expectations and firmness to protect student safety, health, and educational experience."

That letter came after the university system had rejected an unusual plan for Corvias to donate $5.47 million into the Georgia enterprise to improve its financial ratios. Otherwise Corvias had warned that its debt might be downgraded by a credit rating agency and that the company would not be allowed to access a $9.2 million incentive payment for good financial performance.

In late July, Augusta University complained Corvias had failed to paint, disinfect and do maintenance at two dorms to make them move-in ready, with Corvias telling the system it wouldn’t do the work because of budget cuts. The University of North Georgia complained that Corvias was stopping furniture and heating, ventilation and air conditioning replacement being paid for by state funds. East Georgia State College also said dorms weren’t ready.

At the same time Cook was protesting Corvias’ plans, the system office told the nine universities to come up with a plan within a week to hire or divert custodial staff to replace Corvias workers and step up cleaning to meet state and federal standards.

Georgia State came up with a plan to hire eight full-time contractors for $99,840 from August through the end of January.

WATCH: FOX 5 Atlanta live news coverage


Sign up for FOX 5 email alerts

Download the FOX 5 Atlanta app for breaking news and weather alerts.