I am writing this because I am angry, I am alienated, and I want for people to wake up and look around them. I am writing this not as Cesar A. Chavez, Wesleyan University, Class of 2015. I am writing this as Cesar A. Chavez, poor Hispanic male, age 19. I am writing this because we can no longer ignore the economic differences that are present on our campus. I am writing this because I am not ashamed to say that I am poor and I want to break the silence around the issue of poverty.
This summer I received a disturbing email from a custodian. She notified me that the company that contracts them, Sun Services, which in turn is contracted by Wesleyan, was adding unreasonable workloads to the custodians’ schedules and that they were being harassed by their manager and supervisors. The following is a letter directed to President Michael Roth that I was asked to translate.
Dear President of Wesleyan University
The purpose of this letter is to notify you about what is currently happening to us, the custodians of Wesleyan University. Last year your administration brought a new cleaning company to Wesleyan, Sun Services. Sun Services was contracted by Wesleyan University after representatives from this company presented Joyce Topshe, Associate Vice President for Facilities, with a sustainable fiscal plan and an agreement that would insure the ethical and fair treatment of the custodial staff as well as the enforcement of our Union’s contract policies. We understand that when the contract between Wesleyan University and Sun Services was made, an agreement was reached that if the new company broke any of the Union contract policies, the contract with the company would be broken immediately. We the custodians that work at your facility ask that Sun Services be removed from campus on the premises that it has allowed not only for the breach of the contract but also for the harassment, mistreatment, and exploitation of us the custodians. Some company policies demand that custodians be in their assigned work place 5 minutes after punching into the clock card machine. This is preposterous given that many of us work on parts of the campus that are far away from the clock card machine. If we arrive late we are immediately given a warning by our supervisors even though they are aware of the fact that we have to walk long distances from the clock card machine to our assigned posts. Another policy, enforced during the summer, when it can get as hot as 100 F, demands that we custodians work without stop in enclosed spaces with little ventilation. If you are not aware, some dorms like Clark Hall and High Rise have poor ventilation. Fresh air does not enter these buildings causing suffocation and exhaustion among us. The current manager of Sun Services at Wesleyan is Luis Mariano Pelaez and the two current supervisors are Carlos Alzate and Blanca Avila. These three people have harassed us and constantly. They have also used derogatory language against us. During the Reunion and Commencement week we discovered that our positions had been reposted with three times the amount of work per custodian. These workloads are unreasonable, for instance one position required one custodian to be in charge of cleaning the entire Butterfield Colleges. Another position required one person to be in charge of cleaning all of West College and Nicolson. We are only given 8 hours to complete our workloads. If we do not finish on time we are given a warning. These new workloads put additional strain on our bodies. Some of us have already suffered lesions and joint pain due to the excessive manual labor we do. Others have developed respiratory problems because the work we perform in enclosed spaces requires us to use cleaning chemicals, many of which we end up breathing due to the lack of ventilation. Wesleyan University, Sun Services, and the Union directors have stated that they care about our safety. Yet the fact that our voices have been ignored shows the contrary. We have been forced to contact the authorities of the state of Connecticut in order to protect and assert our rights as custodial workers. We have contacted various news outlets from Hartford and the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities of Connecticut. The CHRO came to Wesleyan University to speak with Joyce Topshe in order to put a stop on the harassment of us custodians, but so far these abuses continue. We ask that you get rid of Sun Services and open the contract to another cleaning company that will be beneficial rather than detrimental to us. We have cleaned Wesleyan University for a long time; some of us have been cleaning Wesleyan for over 20 years. We feel welcomed by the students, many of whom see us as members of their own families. Some have been supporting us during these hard times but do not mistake our roles as custodians for subservience, and do not mistake our lack of education for stupidity. We are willing to fight back against those who oppress us. We do not want this situation to escalate to any undesired levels. All we are asking is that we are treated as human beings and that our rights be not violated. We would like to know if you have been made aware of our working conditions by the Associate Vice President for Facilities, Joyce Topshe. Students from the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC), and the CHRO have notified Joyce Topshe in the past about our deplorable working conditions. Due to the lack of effort on the part of your administration to listen to us or help us, we have been led to assume that this information has not reached you. Anyways we thank you for reading this letter and hope to hear from you soon.
The Custodial Staff of Wesleyan University
This letter brings out one of the biggest injustices that this university has committed, ignoring the plight of its workers. Wesleyan can easily dismiss these hard working custodians because they are outside its direct power. However, this is nothing more than an excuse to evade the responsibility of treating these people with the respect and dignity they deserve. As this letter states these custodians have worked for the welfare of this institution for many years. Some of them came to this country as professionals from other countries hoping to earn a better living, but were unable to validate their degrees. Others were unable to achieve higher levels of education because they had to take care of their families.
Everyday these workers sacrifice their health to keep Wesleyan clean and running. And for what? So that they clean up after we throw wild parties, so that they can be abused, and so that their hard work and dedication is ignored? I know we are all busy dealing with different parts of our college lives, but the least we can do is treat these custodians with the human dignity and respect they deserve.
Reduce your trash to lessen the custodian’s untenable work loads. When you see a custodian express your words of gratitude. Ask them out to lunch or join them in their break hours at 200 Church or West-Co. Stand in solidarity, demand that our custodians be acknowledged as members of our community. These actions may seem insignificant but they play an important role in nurturing the custodians’ morale and happiness.