Custodial workers hosted a series of protests this summer against the University and Sun Services, LLC, which owns the contract for custodial work at the University. When Sun Services won the University’s contract bid in the spring of 2012, the company’s custodians assumed most of the campus’ cleaning responsibilities, which were formerly held by University-employed custodians.
On Friday, June 14, approximately 40 custodians protested on their lunch break outside of South College, hoping to present President Michael Roth with their demands. When they learned that Roth was not in his office, they marched instead to his house, where they delivered their demands and a letter from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“Us, Sun Services janitors do not appreciate being treated like animals, and we will no longer tolerate the immense disrespect from our administration,” the letter from the custodians reads. “We have been harassed and degraded by our supervisors for as long as we can remember. We will not allow them to manipulate us anymore. We will not sign this new work plan, which is to be effective in July.”
The letter objected to the ratio of assigned houses to custodian, stating that the new plan fails to account for time spent in transit between locations.
“It seems that regular human ability has been forgotten here,” the letter reads. “…This new plan changes our work schedules and responsibilities without any consideration of how we feel, what we think or what we are humanly capable of.”
Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14, a member of United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC), explained that while the overall number of custodial workers on campus has decreased, the amount of work remains the same.
“Pretty much all of [the Wesleyan custodial workers] have retired,” Sanchez said. “So now the whole campus pretty much, except for a few spots, is all Sun Services. So [for] the past year, when people had retired or left, [Sun Services] hadn’t been hiring to fill those positions. That’s downsizing by attrition, and the company had told Wesleyan that they would do that when they won the contract bid.”
Sun Services recently reorganized the campus work areas so that custodians are not required to cross campus in order the reach their assigned buildings. However, fewer people are responsible for each area than before Sun Services came to the University.
“There used to be a whole team of people who would clean the Butterfields,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “Now there are two people who are responsible for all of the Butterfields. They clean every day; there are more than 90 bathrooms.”
The program houses also have a smaller number of custodians splitting up the work.
“One man cleans all the program houses on Washington, Russell House, and one other office building,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “That’s Writing House and Full House, Light House, Art House, La Casa, Music House, Farm House, Buddhist House, Russell House, and a separate office building. That’s one person. He does that alone.”
After holding rallies and gatherings multiple times over the summer, custodians were able to negotiate with their Sun Services supervisors. Sun Services agreed to let them sign up for certain responsibilities based on seniority, and told them that they would reassess the workload after 30 days.
“The custodians had been refusing to sign [off on] the positions for various reasons,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “The first time around, it wasn’t in Spanish…and a lot of them don’t speak English, really. And then after that they were really afraid about how big the workloads were. So they were resistant to sign that. And then finally, with this agreement that Sun would reassess things, they did sign.”
According to Sanchez-Eppler, USLAC is a driving force for labor reform on campus.
“We’re doing a few things with regards to encouraging people to take initiative with their trash and be mindful of how they are in their space in terms of making messes,” she said. “I don’t think that people are aware [of their messes].”
One custodial worker who has been at the University for over a decade was present at the protests and has been very involved in attempts to improve conditions. She explained the reason behind the protest, speaking anonymously for fear that revealing her name could lead to her suspension.
“They cut people, like 10 people, and they left only 15 positions,” she said. “That’s why we were protesting. We objected—this [plan] has too many houses [per custodian].”
The custodians work seven and a half hours per day and fear that they will not be able to adequately clean their assigned buildings in that time. According to the anonymous custodial worker, failure to do so could eventually cause them to be fired.
“Whatever we don’t finish, it stays like that, because we only work seven [and a half] hours,” she said. “They want the students to live like pigs, because they don’t give us enough time….They don’t care about the students; they just care about money.”
The letter at the June 14 protest clearly listed the custodians’ demands, which are as follows: custodians should be assigned to clean a maximum of eight houses per day, and five when the houses in question are large. They should be assigned to clean no more than three dormitories per day; this portion noted in particular that Nicolson 5 and Nicolson 5.5 should be distinguished from one another and not counted as a single dorm, given their size. Finally, supervisors should ensure that soap, trash bags, and paper are always available so that custodians can do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
The letter from OSHA detailed the custodians’ alleged hazardous conditions: custodial workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals and not given proper personal protective equipment; they are not trained in hazard communications such as reading safety data sheets; their employer had not performed a hazard assessment; they have to carry heavy items and are not allowed to use the elevators; and they are not trained in safe lifting techniques to avoid injury.
OSHA’s letter stated that these hazards are alleged, not proven, and asked that Sun Services, LLC investigate the allegations and make appropriate corrections.
On Thursday, June 13, prior to the demonstration, Manager of Media Relations and Public Relations Kate Carlisle released a statement on the University’s behalf, referring further questions to Sun Services. The statement was quoted in a June 14 article in The Middletown Press.
“Wesleyan values the work that the custodial workers do to keep our campus clean and safe,” the statement reads.
The anonymous custodial worker said that the University told her to bring the situation to the union (Service Employees International Union Hartford Local 32-BJ), but that the union has not yet come to campus.
“The union was not at the rally,” she said. “It’s like [Sun Services] and the union get together and they want us to sign the plan, even if we don’t agree with the plan.”
A representative at 32-BJ declined to comment.
The anonymous custodial worker explained that while the custodians oppose the new plan, they feel as though they were made to sign it; otherwise, they would be assigned jobs regardless of seniority.
“Without respecting my seniority, they can give me whatever they want,” she said. “They can give me the worst position, even if I have seniority.”
The custodians’ new positions went into effect this week. The anonymous custodian said that they still oppose their conditions and hope that Sun Services holds its promise to reassess the situation after 30 days.
“We’re going to have to prove that we don’t have enough time to do [the assigned work],” she said. “We’re not going to give up, because we need the work. We’re going to do whatever we can in seven [and a half] hours.”
Sun Services will reassess soon, and Sanchez-Eppler says that USLAC hopes for improved working conditions on campus.
“Coming to Wesleyan, everything seemed quite nice for a while, but then [I came to] understand that…there’s a lot of oppression that goes on on this campus just because [we] want to live in a clean space,” Sanchez-Eppler said. “For me, something that is really important is that working class people who interact with this campus have an overwhelmingly positive experience and are treated with dignity and respect.”