ABM Contract Up for Grabs: Custodians Report Increased Workloads, Students React
On Feb. 15 the administration began accepting bids for janitorial subcontractors, as the University’s current contract with ABM Industries expires on March 31. Some custodians have reported dramatic increases in their workloads under the current contract, in part because ABM became responsible for the maintenance of ten new campus buildings over the past two years without expanding their staff.
Ten companies, including ABM, submitted bids for the contract and are now under evaluation by a committee that includes administrators, Physical Plant Facility Managers, and two students. According to Associate Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe, the bids will be evaluated based on organization, environmental sustainability, cost, overall quality, and management capabilities.
In anticipation of the bidding process, student representatives from the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) have met repeatedly with custodial workers to discuss the current contract. Based on these meetings, the students drafted a petition that was signed by 50 of the 56 ABM custodians, requesting that the administration select a subcontractor that will reanalyze the current workload, not terminate positions, and uphold the workers’ right to unionize.
In September 2010, ABM assumed responsibility for the maintenance of ten additional buildings, including the Davison Art Center, Shanklin and Hall-Atwater Labs, and Judd Hall, which were previously cleaned by custodians from other companies and in-house staff. No new janitorial positions were added to carry out the task.
According to ABM Hartford Branch Manager Peter Caniano, the custodians assigned to these buildings were able to take on the increased square footage because of a new policy that stipulated they clean offices once a week rather than five times per week.
Custodians have pointed out that in practice the workloads before and after restructuring do not equate. In addition to cleaning extra buildings, the custodians must also empty trash cans in offices that are piled high with a week’s worth of garbage.
“When we go to collect the trash, we find that it has accumulated after days,” said Fernando Ruiz, Night Shift Steward for SEIU Local 32 BJ. “The trash bags are heavy and difficult to carry down the stairs, especially in a rush.”
According to Joyce Topshe, faculty and staff were instructed to empty trash into larger bins in the hallway, but recent feedback illustrates that this often did not occur.
In addition to cleaning Fisk Hall, Ruiz is now also responsible for the maintenance of two other office buildings. Ruiz said that his situation is not unique, and the workloads of other custodians on the night shift have nearly doubled, while they receive no additional pay or time to complete the task.
For example, Exley Science Tower, which was previously cleaned by approximately five members of Physical Plant’s in-house staff, is now maintained by only two ABM custodians.
Although USLAC circulated a petition stating that many workers have been laid off in recent months, both Caniano and Physical Plant administrators have refuted this statement. According to Caniano, there has been only one layoff since winter break.
He said that this this was because ABM had inadvertently added an extra employee during restructuring.
“Recently, one employee was reduced to coincide our labor force with the contractual billing amount,” Caniano wrote in an email to The Argus.
This custodian’s work was redistributed among other workers. One worker now cleans nine program houses a day instead of eight and another was given two kitchens in addition to the dorm she already cleans.
Faith in ABM
Day Shift Steward for SEIU Local 32 BJ Herminia Duran said that her workload has not increased, nor has the workload of many of the daytime custodians. However, Duran fears that if ABM does not win the contract, her job will become more difficult.
“With our experiences, we know that when a new company comes in, they want to save money,” she said. “They will reduce people and restructure everything. With that restructuring, many of us will have a lot more work.”
Ruiz and other custodians who spoke with The Argus echoed the sentiment. They hope that the increased workloads are reassessed, but by ABM instead of another company.
Olga Medina, who cleans the Nicholson dorms, said she appreciates that she always receives her check on time from ABM, which she fears would not be the case with some of the companies rumored to be vying for the contract.
“ABM has never failed to pay us,” she said. “Never. There are companies that we know are applying here that don’t give you your check.”
While the Wesleyan Service Contractor’s Code states that if a new vendor is awarded the contract, current custodians will be offered any available jobs, anxieties about the bidding process are still high.
“It is stressful to wait to hear if a new contract will be signed or if there will be a new company,” Duran said. “We don’t know what that will mean for us.”
SEIU Local 32BJ Field Representative Jose Rodriguez said that custodians brought their concerns about work distribution to his attention. However, he determined that it would be best to wait until after the contract is signed to address them because of the possibility that a new company will be brought in and institute major changes.
“We need to know who will be the responsible company and then we will go from there,” he said.
While the union elected to wait until after the new contract was signed, students decided to take immediate action. USLAC held meetings with custodians and relayed information to Physical Plant about the current distribution of work. One USLAC member, Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14, was appointed to the University committee charged with evaluating the bids for subcontractor.
“Our role in that process is to influence Wesleyan as to what their priorities should be when choosing a contractor and to basically say, 'these are the things you need to guarantee within the contract,'” said Nick Petrie ’12.
According to Petrie, three major concerns arose from the meetings: that heavy workloads be reanalyzed, that there be no layoffs, and that the union remain intact.
However, the students see themselves primarily as a microphone for the workers’ voice, rather than an organizing body.
“USLAC is in a really difficult place because we can’t be a union,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “We absolutely do not have that kind representational ability–and we’re certainly not legally recognized in that capacity.”
Not Just Custodians
Custodians are not the only ones who have reported more work. Over the past two years, both administrative assistants and Physical Plant employees have raised concerns about increased workloads due to staff reductions and rearrangements.
Since 2005, the number of administrative assistants at the University has decreased from approximately 140 to 108 through a combination of retirements, layoffs, and voluntary separation packages that were offered, according to Administrative Assistant and former Union Steward Barbara Schukoske.
In Fall 2009, the administration consolidated secretarial work and implemented a system called the “Business Office Model.” Under the new system, some administrative assistants worked part time in one department and part time in another, which Shuckoske described as a complete failure.
“The administration has significantly increased workloads for the remaining staff,” she wrote in an email to The Argus. “Work has shifted. The administration has explained that the technology is supposed to ease the workload, but in most instances, it has increased it significantly.”
Similarly, The Argus reported last fall that the number of Physical Plant union workers decreased from 86 in 1994 to 49 in 2010.
“We’ve taken on a whole lot of new buildings, more work, and as best we can rag-tag do it with the people left in a 40-hour week,” Physical Plant employee and Union Steward Pete McGurgan told The Argus during contract negotiations.
According to Topshe, the 11 percent cut in Physical Plant staff since 2004 is typical of maintenance staff reductions at peer institutions. In December 2009, eight Physical Plant employees accepted “Voluntary Separation Packages,” a reduction which Topshe said was intended to reduce operational expenses.
In the Meantime
Topshe said that she plans to have the winner of the contract selected and in place by April 1. While custodians await the decision about their future boss, Sanchez-Eppler said she is cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the contract.
“I honestly think that, as far as the administration is concerned, happier workers are better as long as the bill isn’t too much higher for it,” she said.
Additionally, Sanchez-Eppler pointed to this historic success of collaborations between USLAC and workers.
“For some reason, when students and workers get together on an issue and have a lot of names behind a petition or a proposal, it really gets the administration moving, and also gets ABM moving,” she said.
She added that her role in the process has given her a new respect for the people who clean her program house and has caused her to be a little less messy.
“Through this process, there are messes that I can’t leave around anymore,” she said. “When I spill something in the kitchen, I have to clean it up because of a recognition that someone is going to clean it up, and if it's not me, then it will be Erlinda or Jesus and they have so much to do already.”