Employee who viewed workplace as family loses job

Aug 10, 2021 | Spotlight

By Emma Collins

Autumn Jarvis knew she was about to be fired when she received an email from her director on March 7 asking Jarvis to meet with her in her director’s office in 15 minutes.

The day itself had been normal, although the atmosphere was still just as tense as it had been for the past three weeks while Jarvis and the rest of the staff at the IT Helpdesk waited to hear about the upcoming layoffs. Western Kentucky University’s administration had already announced that jobs would be cut and the fired employees informed by the middle of March, but so far, there hadn’t been any indication of who would soon be out of a job. Jarvis, who had worked there for nearly 12 years, knew there was a possibility someone in her department would be fired, but up until that email, there had been no signs that it would be her.

Seeing that request without any explanation was enough to tip her off that her position was about to be cut.

“So, I knew right then,” Jarvis said. “I knew right then, and it was terrible.”

Jarvis’ position was one of 119 full-time positions cut in the first round of layoffs in spring 2018, according to documents from WKU President Timothy Caboni obtained through an open records request. Jarvis’ position was one of 12 positions cut from the IT Department. The cuts are part of an attempt to stabilize WKU’s budget.

Jarvis was born an hour and a half away from Bowling Green in Hopkins County on Sept. 27, 1988. Growing up, she spent a lot of time on the computer entertaining herself while her mother provided end of life care for Jarvis’ father, two uncles and grandparents.

As a child, Jarvis was considered gifted, and although no one in her family had gone to college, it was always assumed she would go. When it came time to pick a school, Jarvis knew she wanted to stay close to family, so she looked at Murray State University and WKU, both about 90 miles from her home. She chose WKU because she liked the campus better.

The now 29-year-old started at WKU in 2006 as a 17-year-old psychology major. Up until she started college, Jarvis had never considered a job in IT, and she chose her major because her friends often came to her for advice with their problems.

Jarvis also started looking for her first job when she arrived at WKU. She found two open positions, one at the library for minimum wage and another at the IT Helpdesk for a little above minimum wage. She chose the IT position for no other reason than the pay was higher. She started work there as a student worker the same day she started her first semester of classes.

As a new employee, Jarvis had to learn to work the technology platforms the university used at the time, an experience she called “trial by fire.” At the Helpdesk, Jarvis was one of the first points of contact for people who lost their email password or had trouble connecting to the internet. Most of her time was spent replying to chats and answering phone calls from people struggling to figure out technology.

“There were several times I wanted to quit, but the folks there were (and have always been and still are) just so encouraging and supportive,” she said. “Even other student workers, the staff who oversaw me, they were always so encouraging and so kind and so willing to teach and to make up for any shortcomings I had that it was definitely worth it.”

In January 2009, Jarvis was hired as a temporary, part-time employee for three months to help manage “the numerous cases that happen because of the start of the semester,” according to her personnel records obtained through an open records request. Three months later, she was hired as a regular, part-time Helpdesk consultant.

“It was such a great environment and great job that I ended up never leaving,” she said.

Part-time staff at WKU work 35 hours a week. Jarvis said she couldn’t balance her part-time job and classes in a field she wasn’t passionate about, so she dropped out of school to take the job. She was also struggling with then-undiagnosed narcolepsy that made it hard for her to balance both.

“It wasn’t difficult to decide I wanted to go with the work track instead of the college track,” she said.

Lee Underwood, 49, met Jarvis six years ago when he accepted a position as the IT consultant at WKU’s Owensboro campus in 2012. Underwood said during the two day training prior to starting his job, Jarvis helped teach him one of the programs.

“Just dealing with her, I just instantly felt this bond of friendship because she was just so kind and took away all of that intimidation factor of learning something new and knowing that I would be using it fairly quickly,” he said.

Although Underwood worked in Owensboro, he communicated with the IT Helpdesk on the main campus and called them if there was a problem at the Owensboro campus he couldn’t fix.

“I always knew that whenever I called and got [Jarvis] on the line that whatever the issue is she would find the answer,” Underwood said. “And so it got to the point whenever I would call with an issue, it’d be like, ‘Please let it be Autumn, please let it be Autumn.’”

Jarvis stayed in the part-time position until 2015 when she was hired as a full-time Helpdesk consultant. During her time in the IT department, Jarvis had grown close to her coworkers. There wasn’t a lot of employee turnover in her area, and many of the student workers graduated and became full-time employees. After years of working in the same job with the same people, Jarvis had to come to view many of the people there as her family.

“I know that sounds very trite to say … but I very sincerely mean that,” she said. “I have no local family. My boss at the time and my boss’s boss, they were the same people the whole 12 years that I was there.”

Jarvis said she felt their support the most when her mom died unexpectedly in 2015. The funeral was held the second Monday after classes had started in August.

“A huge chunk of the division drove an hour and a half each way to sit at a visitation for 20 minutes for a woman they had never met and then had to turn around and go back and catch up on all the work they had been missing,” Jarvis said.

Charles Plemons, the IT Helpdesk manager and Jarvis’ boss, made sure that Jarvis was able to take off time to be with her family and grieve the loss of her mom even though the first weeks of the semester are the busiest time for the Helpdesk.

“It was very much a supportive family there,” she said. “I knew that they always had my back.”

Jarvis’ coworkers were also supportive of her the day she found out she lost her job.

That workday was no different from the rest. Jarvis and her coworkers had heard that Underwood had lost his job earlier that morning, which had upset many of the Helpdesk staff on the main campus. The atmosphere was still tense from the announcement of the pending layoffs, but Jarvis saw no sign that one of the main campus employees would be let go until she received the email from Lori Douglas, director of Technical Support Services, asking Jarvis to come to her office in 15 minutes.

Jarvis went to Douglas’ office a few minutes early. When she arrived, she saw a package on the desk and tears in Douglas’ eyes. Douglas then told her that her position was cut.

Jarvis was given time to say goodbye to the people she worked with, and she packed up her desk to leave. As she left, almost all the Helpdesk staff followed her “entourage style” out of the building. She had carpooled to work that day and didn’t have her own car, so her boss had to drive her home. They both cried.

“It was just an ugly day,” Jarvis said. “It was just an ugly situation.”

Unlike other employees who were also fired later that month, Jarvis left her job immediately. Other employees were given until March 31 to leave, although all of them, including Jarvis, will be paid through June 30. Jarvis thinks she had to leave her job the same day she was fired for two reasons.

“I think one part of it was human resources saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want to lay somebody off and then have to sit at work, have to work for another two weeks with access to all of this highly confidential and private information,’” Jarvis said. “If I were a malicious person, I could have done a lot of very bad things with that … I could have scrambled President Caboni’s password, and then sent it to somebody else. I mean I wouldn’t ever do that, but that’s still a huge liability.”

Jarvis thinks her bosses are the second reason she had to leave immediately.

“My bosses were not interested in forcing me to work knowing that I was going to be made to leave in three weeks,” she said. “They didn’t want me to do that. They thought that that was silly.”

Jarvis’s access to the computers was also cancelled as she was being told she lost her job, so she was no longer able to access records or data or change someone’s password. Revoking computer access is typical protocol when an IT employee leaves the job. Without the access, Jarvis wouldn’t be able to help the clients who called in.

“There was no point in me being there at that point,” she said.

Jarvis was never told why her position was chosen to be cut. She asked if it was because she didn’t have a degree, but she was told legally, WKU couldn’t tell her. Her termination is only described as “reduction in force” in her personnel file.

Jarvis’ personnel action form with the information for why she was terminated. Her termination was listed as “reduction in force.”

A notice of separation letter signed by Gordon Johnson, vice president for Information Technology, and included in Jarvis’ file said the decision of which position to eliminate was based on “a centralized review and solely on critical functions and strategic business needs of the affected unit or department.” The letter goes on to say that the elimination is permanent, but she can apply for other WKU positions.

A certification of separation from service included in her file and signed by Tony Glisson, human resources director, informs future employers that Jarvis was fired from her position at WKU because of budget reductions rather than her behavior in the workplace. Jarvis said Johnson told her he would write her a “glowing letter of recommendation.”

Underwood said Jarvis was one of the Helpdesk consultants he hoped would answer the phone when he called the main campus. She was able to help him and his colleagues on numerous occasions.

“One thing I can say is that she is an amazing lady, and anytime I got to visit with her or talk with her or whatever has been absolutely great,” Underwood said. “She’s been amazingly helpful to me as well as the other folks at our campus that I know that have dealt with her and I’m sure university wide. She’s just that great.”

Out of all her colleagues at the Helpdesk on the main campus, Jarvis was the only one fired. She said she was also one of the longest-serving employees there. Her salary was on par with most of her colleagues and lower than at least two, according to an open records request. She said she doesn’t want to imply that someone else should have been fired, but she also wants to know why it was her.

“You have to question why was [I] chosen instead of the person who was hired last year and is still in training?” she said.

Jarvis’ personnel file does not contain any evaluations, good or bad, about her performance. She received three salary increases between 2009 and 2014, according to her file, although the file does not specify why her salary was increased. In 2015, her salary decreased when she transitioned from working extended hours and weekends to the day shift.

Jarvis said she also received praise from former-President Gary Ransdell and Caboni when they each called the Helpdesk for assistance. She said she was able to solve both of the men’s problems, and they later praised her work to her boss.

The decision of which jobs to cut fell to each department head. Johnson, who signed the notice of separation letter, was the department head who oversaw the Helpdesk.

Jarvis said she doesn’t resent him for selecting her position to be cut. She didn’t know Johnson well, but he texted her when her mom died, and they spoke when they passed each other in the office.

“I want to be mad about it, like [I] really want to be upset and be angry, but I know this wasn’t an easy decision for him,” she said.

Jarvis said if there’s anyone to blame, it’s the university’s administration.

“I mean I want to be mad, but there’s nothing to really be mad at other than poor financial planning,” she said.

Jarvis hasn’t been back to WKU since she lost her job. She’s occupied herself searching for jobs. She drove to Little Rock, Arkansas, a few weeks ago to interview for an IT position. Her sister lives in Little Rock with her four sons, so Jarvis would like to move there. Without a job, she doesn’t have much reason to stay in Bowling Green.

“I was really only sticking around in Bowling Green for my job and my roommates,” she said.

With one of her roommates moving to a new city and the other moving into an apartment, Jarvis said she probably won’t stay in Bowling Green. She’s lived in the same 90-mile circumference for nearly 30 years, and the thought of leaving the friends she has in Bowling Green is terrifying to her. So is the thought of leaving Kentucky. She views it as just a part of life, though.

“It’s scary, but I think I’m ready to live somewhere else,” Jarvis said. “I think I’ve explored all the opportunities that Bowling Green has.”

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