“I’m not supposed to have all those areas [to clean],” custodian Reynaldo* said.
“He has to be running,” custodian Cloe* added. “And if you don’t do it, they get mad and punish you with more work, or give you a warning, or say you got a lot of complaints.”
Since 2012, when Service Management Group (SMG)—formerly Sun Services—was contracted by the University for custodial labor, worker conditions have been deteriorating. After SMG won their bid for the contract, they promised to retain all current 60 workers. However, union members soon learned that SMG would circumvent this promise by not replacing the first ten workers who left the staff voluntarily, retired, or were fired with just cause.
Naturally, the remaining workers faced a significant increase in their workloads. However, downsizing is not the only reason for the increased responsibilities for custodial staff; the construction of Bennet Hall in 2005, the University’s acquisition of new houses and buildings, and the steady increase in the student population have also contributed to the strain placed on custodians.
Several formal and informal complaints have been raised against SMG, the most recent of which followed the firing of María Sarabia. In this case, a supervisor saw Sarabia sit to drink coffee to restore her blood sugar levels, and Sarabia was fired without severance. The Wesleyan United Student Labor/Action Coalition (USLAC) quickly took action and started a petition that gathered over 1000 signatures to get Sarabia her job back.
Currently, USLAC is advocating for the University to allow SMG to hire five more workers to alleviate heavy workloads.
“Between the years of 2012 and 2014, the Wesleyan custodial staff population decreased from 60 workers to 50 workers,” USLAC member Emma Llano ’19 said. “So we could be more radical, we could ask for 10 workers. I mean, hell, we could ask for 15 workers, because not only has the custodial staff gone down but the student population increased, but we think this is a reasonable starting place because of the history of the 10 workers being cut out.”
In talking to custodial staff around campus, members of USLAC found that many workers can’t take their lunch breaks due to the amount of work they are expected to complete each shift. Llano points out that one person cleans the entirety of Fauver and Bennet, which used to be a two-person job before the staff changes were made. USLAC members also learned that a single worker is responsible for cleaning Hewitt 8, 9, and 10, and that another employee’s individual responsibilities include cleaning WestCo, Summerfields, and Weshop and emptying the garbage from all Foss buildings, Bennet, and Clark on Sundays.
Instead of completing each one of their daily tasks, custodians must distribute the tasks involved in cleaning buildings throughout the week. A custodian might only be able to clean the staircases in their assigned buildings on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and bathrooms on different days. However, Llano mentioned that custodians do not find this situation ideal.
“I’ve had workers tell me they feel bad that they can’t clean everything,” Llano said. “One worker told me she felt bad she couldn’t get to all the bathrooms, and she felt bad that students would have to use a dirty bathroom, which she shouldn’t feel bad about that, because she could not humanly do it.”
In advocating for five additional workers to ease these workloads, USLAC member Maia Reumann-Moore ’19 said that demonstrating the unmanageable workloads to University administrators is the biggest hurdle.
“Part of getting the school to hire more workers is getting them to acknowledge that the workloads are unreasonable,” Reumann-Moore said. “I think that’s been the hardest part. That implicit acknowledgement that things are currently unfair is really hard for the school to make.”
One of the difficulties involved in showing that custodians’ workloads are too heavy is that the workloads themselves are difficult to quantify. To attempt to assess this, SMG and Physical Plant have performed calculations in order to compare workloads with other schools.
“President Roth has met multiple times with student leaders to discuss their concerns, and commissioned a study to investigate the issues raised,” Manager of Media and Public Relations Lauren Rubenstein wrote in an email to The Argus. “An analysis of nine other selective liberal arts college peers shows that the workload for SMG’s custodial employees at Wesleyan (measured as square footage per FTE) is right around the peer average. We also found that the work requirements differ significantly at different schools. For example, at other schools, custodians are required to shovel snow and change lightbulbs, which is not the case at Wesleyan.”
Reumann-Moore said administrators don’t factor traveling between buildings into calculating workloads, or how the amount of foot traffic and type of building can also change the workload. While square footage can and has been used as a metric, Reumann-Moore mentions that this does not adequately reflect the work that custodians have to put into their assigned buildings.
“I think the industry standards on square footage are set for office buildings most of the time,” Reumann-Moore said. “So if you think about an office building, that’s something where people are there for eight hours of the day, it’s pretty light usage, and they’re adults who are relatively mature and responsible about their environment. Custodians here are cleaning spaces where 18-year-olds are living, so think about the amount of mess and trash that’s generated in WestCo on your average weekend, and there’s one person who cleans all of WestCo [and more].”
Reumann-Moore said that in meetings with President Michael Roth ’78, USLAC was told that it wasn’t possible to compare custodian workloads with workloads of custodians at other universities of comparable sizes. But the University did compare the square footage custodians were expected to clean to industry standards.
“Both Wesleyan and SMG have told us, ‘We’re well above industry standards,’ or, ‘We meet industry standards,’ but there’s no recognition that this campus is not within really what an industry standard encompasses,” Llano said.
“It’s interesting that we’re trying to be an exceptional institution in all these other ways,” Reumann-Moore added. “We’re trying to be exceptional academically, athletically, and yet in terms of how we treat some of the most vulnerable members of our campus community, we’re settling for just adequate.”
In addition to the physical limitations of completing their assigned work, the relationship between SMG leadership and custodial staff detailed by Reynaldo and Cloe has been strained ever since SMG won their contract bid. In 2013, the custodial staff wrote an open letter to President Roth detailing the increase in workloads and injustices they had experienced since SMG took over custodial operations.
“These three people [one manager and two supervisors] have harassed us…constantly,” the letter reads. “They have also used derogatory language against us…. We are only given 8 hours to complete our workloads. If we do not finish on time we are given a warning.”
On behalf of SMG and Physical Plant, the administration met with USLAC to propose solutions to the custodians’ complaints, but USLAC and some custodians have noted that the discrepancies between contract agreements and SMG practice have not been addressed. However, members of the administration are open to continuing discussions about the issues USLAC has brought up.
“Wesleyan strives to be a good and fair employer for all workers on our campus, and requires the same from our contractors,” Rubenstein elaborated. “When Wesleyan was seeking a new company to oversee custodial work in 2013, the students and staff who selected SMG did so in large part because of its admirable record on treating employees with fairness and respect. As in the past, such as when students expressed concerns about adequate resourcing of CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] and the need to establish a Resource Center, we are open to assessing the situation, continuing to talk with students and the custodians themselves, and adding resources if we can validate the need.”
Reynaldo and Cloe said custodians are paid differently based on whether their role is designated as light or heavy-duty work. One worker claims that even though there is a contractual distinction, light-duty workers are often given heavy-duty work with no supplementary pay.
“Right now, I’m light-duty, and my position is heavy-duty,” Cloe said. “And they don’t pay me for that…. I’m using the machines to clean the floors, I’m cleaning the bathrooms, I use the mops all the time…”
These discrepancies also exist in other role designations within the custodial staff. As of Sept. 7, 2018, SMG employed 50 Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs)—the equivalent of 50 full-time workers that could be comprised of temporary, part-time, or full-time workers—and three supervisors. As Cloe and Reynaldo explain, three of the FTEs are not assigned to a specific area of campus to clean. Instead, they are assigned to projects—cleaning windows, cleaning paint off walls, or shampooing carpets, for instance—around campus.
Reynaldo explained that when a custodian typically assigned to an area is on vacation, SMG does not hire a temporary employee but rather re-assigns project-based workers to cover these areas.
“…You have to let the boss know when you’re leaving for vacation,” Reynaldo said. “So, there is supposed to be a temp ready for [cleaning your area]. But they don’t do that.”
“They use Projects for that, and they don’t do [their job] because they’re covering for vacations,” Cloe added.
This alleged resistance to hiring temporary workers to cover for employees who are on vacation causes tasks typically assigned to project-based workers to land on the laps of the worker assigned to the areas in question. Because they are spread thin, managers encourage workers in those areas to perform the Project tasks.
While not all workers describe themselves as overworked, Llano says that through talking to custodians, she has found that the majority of workers are. And according to Reumann-Moore, there seems to be a consensus among workers that it is necessary to hire five more custodians.
“I think most people feel like their jobs are pretty tough, but I think it does start to seem relative because some people are so overworked and some people are less overworked, but no one really has a light workload,” Reumann-Moore said.
Llano and Reumann-Moore described some solutions proposed by SMG and the University, solutions which they think do not actually address the issue of custodial staff being overworked. One solution proposed was to add more overtime work on Mondays to compensate for lack of trash collection on the weekends.
“A lot of custodians have second jobs, and they don’t have time to work overtime,” Reumann-Moore said. “They want to spend time with their families, and…adding overtime actually doesn’t address that issue because people aren’t asking for more work, they’re asking for the ability to take breaks and to sit down in the middle of their work day and eat a meal.”
Another proposed change is for SMG to shadow employees to assess difficulties and offer additional training for workers. However, according to Reumann-Moore, this is not a logical solution to custodians’ issues.
“The additional training is funny, right, because it assumes managers who are not professional cleaners know more about how to clean something efficiently than people who literally do it all day long every day and who have done it for years of their lives,” Reumann-Moore said. “It’s insulting to the people who have actually developed these skills.”
Llano and Reumann-Moore also mentioned that the University has pointed to the fact that student-generated messes add significantly to custodial workloads. While members of USLAC attest to the fact that students should be more cognizant of their messes, they feel the problem is not caused primarily by students.
“Students being cleaner on their own isn’t going to solve this,” Reumann-Moore said. “It’s a structural issue that requires more people to be hired, but at the same time it’s good to be responsible and clean up after yourself as much as you can.”
While SMG may hold culpability in the treatment of custodial staff, USLAC believes the University must be the one to step up and hire more workers.
“It has to be the school [to hire more workers] because SMG is competing,” Reumann-Moore said. “They’re trying to remain competitive in the market with other subcontractors, so they’re trying to offer the school the lowest price point possible. The school has to be the one to say they’re willing to pay more and they’re willing to foot the bill to hire additional workers, because under the current economic conditions, SMG isn’t going to make that move on their own. They have no incentive to do so.”
USLAC’s struggle shows no sign of slowing down, as the group continues to pressure the University to acknowledge and address the issue of unreasonable custodial workloads.
“I’ve personally been working with custodians on this for the past two-and-a-half years, and the demand has been the same,” Llano said. “We’ve tried to meet with Roth a thousand times, we’ve tried to reach out to the corporation, we’ve tried through the union, we’ve tried it all. We’ve literally exhausted all of our options. Direct action needs to happen now.”
*Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the speakers’ anonymity.
Correction: This article has been updated due to an incorrect attribution of a quote to Llano instead of Reumann-Moore.
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