Odessa Davis opens the closet and tries to strap a Rocketeer-like vacuum cleaner to her back. She jostles it from shoulder to shoulder, but it doesn’t quite fit. Davis was recently reassigned to the building, and the old housekeeper was taller.

She points to a shelf crammed with chemicals. Here’s the all-purpose M8 and the 4L disinfectant. This one removes mildew. The one next to it cleans glass.

“That stuff is terrible,” she says, scrunching her face and pointing to a white and red spray bottle that reads “Oven Blaster.” “This is what I was using when I had my attack. It’s so strong, and when you spray that stuff in the oven, you have to get away from it quick.”

That’s what Davis says she did this summer while cleaning ovens in Baity Hill, an apartment community off Mason Farm Road for students with families. Short of breath from an asthma attack, she sat down to use an inhalerfor no more than five minutes, she says.

But after a supervisor who was making the rounds saw her sitting, Davis, who has worked as a UNC housekeeper for 14 years, was suspended without pay for one week.

Davis is one of seven full-time housekeepers who were suspended without pay in July and August for taking unauthorized breaks. However, after the UNC Employee Forum reviewed the cases, all of the incidents were expunged from employee records and the employees were paid for time missed. Davis returned to work but was reassigned from Ram Village to Baity Hill.

Armed with stories similar to Davis’, a group of housekeepers and labor advocates rallied last week on Franklin Street and marched to Chancellor Holden Thorp’s office to deliver a collective grievance and demand a response. They called on Thorp to revoke policies preventing workers from taking unapproved bathroom breaks or sitting down, even momentarily.

Davis was one of five housekeepers who used their lunch break to deliver the grievance. Supporters argue that the sudden spike in discipline is further evidence of a long-standing mistreatment of low-income workers on campus.

In an Aug. 31 article in The Daily Tar Heel, Assistant Director for Housekeeping Tonya Sell, who served in Iraq and began her administrative housekeeping job last year, discussed bringing military discipline to the housekeeping operation.

“This isn’t one grievance, this is a pattern,” says Miriam Thompson, labor chairwoman for the Chapel Hill/ Carrboro NAACP. “It’s too hostile a work environment. It’s not one work supervisor, it’s more.”

Thompson and Davis were among 30 people who carried signs promoting “Jobs with Justice,” reminding that “Workers are People, too” and urging Chancellor Thorp to “Listen to the Housekeepers.”

He did.

Two days later, well before the deadline the housekeepers had set to receive a response from the university, Executive Director for Facilities Services Van Dobson issued a memo “to clarify a few details.”

The memo states that “reasonable rests, such as trips to the rest room, stops at the water cooler, and momentary pauses in between tasks, are not considered to be breaks and do not require employees to notify their supervisors or receive approval.”

Workers are encouraged to immediately stop working and notify a supervisor if they are out of breath, overheated or dizzy.

Brandon Thomas, communications director for Facilities Services, says the memo applies to all facilities workers, not just housekeepers. Facilities Services lists 400 housekeepers who are managed by 24 zone leaders. Together they clean 245 campus buildings per day and provide 24-hour service.

“There was just some confusion,” Thomas says. “This was just to clarify how (university and state policy) applies in Facilities Services.”

While many who demonstrated last week are praising Thorp for responding swiftly, some housekeepers still doubt that the policy will be applied reasonably. They question the amount of discretion supervisors are granted and say there needs to be more structure to the complaint process, including warnings and mediation before pay is docked or workers are fired.

Thompson, meanwhile, feels encouraged and hopes to capitalize on the momentum. “We want to talk about collective bargaining, because the ultimate is to give them the power to really negotiate, that will be part of later work around the Legislature to get 95-98 repealed.”

Passed by the Legislature in 1959, N.C. Statute 95-98 establishes collective bargaining as “illegal, unlawful, void and of no effect.”

Housekeepers receive support from the NAACP and UE Local 150, a statewide union of public service workers. The group helps organize and file complaints on behalf of workers, but it lacks the power to seek contracts or agreements on behalf of the workforce.

This is just the latest in a decades-old struggle for housekeepers. Al McSurely, a Chapel Hill civil rights lawyer and chairman of the N.C. NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee, was among those marching to the chancellor’s office last week. He was part of a legal team that reached a settlement with UNC in 1996 to increase housekeeper pay and create better working conditions.

“It’s unfortunate that what you call institutional memory from the South Building point of view is very one-sided and very defensive,” he said.

Fritzi Ross, of the NAACP and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, has been protesting on behalf of UNC housekeepers since the late 1980s. “You read the history and it just breaks your heart,” she says. “But the present breaks your heart too.”

Back at Baity Hill, Davis rolls her trash can full of cleaning chemicals into the closet, shuts off the lights and heads downstairs. She has two more buildings to clean today.