Wesleyan’s Custodial Workers Protest Working Conditions, Employee Cuts Outside Roth’s House on Lunch Break

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On Friday, June 14, many of Wesleyan’s custodial workers gave up their lunch hour to protest employee cuts and demand better working conditions. The custodians protested on the lawn outside President Roth’s house due to news that Sun Services, the contractor who provides Wesleyan’s custodial services, plans to cut 13 of Sun’s 60 workers and divide up responsibilities among the already-overburdened staff. According to The Middletown Press, the protest included about 40 of Sun’s 60 employees, who were joined by cafeteria workers in “UNITE HERE!” t-shirts in solidarity.

Their demands, directly quoted from The Middletown Press are as follows:

When it became clear that Roth was not in the office, the group struck camp and marched around the green to the president’s residence. They brought with them letters for the administration, Sun and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, demanding new requirements to reduce their cleaning workload to a maximum of eight houses a day—or five a day in the case of larger houses.

The Sun employees also requested that each worker not be required to clean more than three dormitories per day.

They also charge that Sun has demanded they work in high-rise dorms using noxious chemicals without gas masks or ventilation fans, and that workers have started to fall ill. 

Three dormitories a day? Think about the work that goes into cleaning dorms every day. Using Freshman Fauver Bennet Hall as an example, that’s three trash rooms, twelve bathrooms, at least eight common areas, and a kitchen. Clark has four trash rooms, five lounge-areas, nine bathrooms, and a kitchen. Their demand is to not be made to clean more than three dorms a day. Even with that restriction, that could mean having to empty up to ten trash rooms a day and clean over twenty bathrooms. Likewise with houses. 

According to Gloria Tobon, a spokeswoman for the custodians, Sun has already gotten rid of five union workers and replaced them with temps who make only $9 to $10 an hour. Unlike union employees – many of whom have been working at Wes for 17 years, according to Tobon – temp workers do not get the same salaries or benefits.

Moreover, some workers believe that the Sun intentionally made this decision with students off campus:

In the meanwhile, Sun is looking to restructure the custodial workers immediately—a maneuver that some of the workers see as a calculated tactic to circumvent opposition from the student body.

“When the students are here, we’re backed up by them,” said Enrique Rivera, who has been working at Wesleyan for five years, first for American Building Maintenance and later for Sun when they obtained the Wesleyan contract.

“It’s nuts, it’s crazy,” said Rivera, who sweeps, washes and scrubs down the Usdan University Center and elsewhere. “They’re adding more work to our schedule.”

Restructuring while students are off campus to avoid backlash by the student body? If this rings a bell, it’s because it’s pretty much exactly what happened with the cutting of need-blind admissions, when, after an Affordability Forum in late April about Wesleyan’s rising tuition, a conversation was held in late May in which the Board of Trustees debated the need-blind issue and ultimately decided to shift to a need-aware model. Though the aforementioned Affordability Forum promised to involve students in ongoing discussion, the fact that the decision was made during Senior Week – after the majority of Wesleyan’s non-graduating students were off campus – was seen as dishonest by many students. Though students and graduates still on campus mobilized, including a banner drop during graduation, students were not able to begin voicing their discontent en masse until the fall.

This is also not the first time that Sun has tried to lay off workers over the summer. Last summer, Sun tried to lay off 10 workers in August, which sparked a student petition. Ultimately, Sun decided to not lay off the workers in question.

Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14 is a member of USLAC, the United Student-Action Labor Coalition, which is a group of students who work to try and protect the rights of University laborers. I contacted her for information and comments on this change, asking her the following questions:

  • Could you tell me anything more about the specifics of what Sun is planning to do? Have they released any sort of justification for cutting these workers? Have they announced some sort of way to alleviate worker concerns? Basically, are they listening to workers at all?
  • How did you, as a USLAC member, find out about this? Did Sun make any sort of statement?
  • Do you guys [USLAC] have plans for dealing with this? If so, how can students get involved, and when will these efforts begin?
  • What are your personal impressions of this whole thing?

Her response follows, in full:

Sun Services made no statement to students about the changes and were not clear enough with the union about what was changing. This staff decrease is in the original contract between Sun and Wesleyan so it has been looming for a year now. With regards to that, there is not really anything more that the workers or USLAC could do but express concern about the feasibility of the change. The specifics of the reorganization that Sun is proposing are a mixed bag. There are some positive changes being implemented. For example, there will be a transition to mostly day training shifts, with many night shifts moved to daytime hours; workers will no longer have to work the 11:00 PM to 8:00 AM shift. There will also be a reorganization of area so that workers won’t have to walk so far to get to the various buildings for which they are responsible. [BZOD Note: This was a major point of contention last year.] Workers generally think that these are good changes.

That said, there are a number of problems with the reorganization plan. I have copies of all the posted positions [the routes and duties assigned to each worker] and many of them are absolutely unreasonable despite everything that Sun is saying. Sun has also promised new equipment and training that would speed the cleaning process. However, in places like Olin Library, this new equipment was implemented last year, but the large vacuums were so unwieldy that workers did not use them for long before returning to their small vacuum backpacks. Ultimately, this new equipment ended up in a closet, where it has sat ever since. By the end of next semester, I anticipate that similar “realities” of the job and Sun’s failure to actually train the workers will mean that much of this new equipment in which Sun plans to invest will go unused as well.

Meanwhile, over the past few months, the workers’ supervisors have been especially nasty towards them. [BZOD Note: This is a major point for the protesting employees right now.] Supervisors have been watching workers over their shoulders, using threatening language towards them, and giving out warnings left and right for things over which the workers have very little control.

Workers are worried about their safety. They also worry that, especially after the reorganization is in effect, warnings will pile up very fast because, due to the larger cleaning areas, they [the workers] will not be able to clean their assigned spaces during the work day. They are quite reasonably worried that the inevitable accumulation of these warnings will end in lay-offs. Many older workers especially feel pressured to retire before they can afford to do so.

USLAC mostly finds out about these kinds of things when workers approach us. Also, Joyce Topshe, the vice president for facilities, has taken to e-mailing me preemptively when she fears that something may come up, but that’s more to specific to me because we have a working relationship, and less about USLAC. Sun Services does not deal directly with students.

This is what I think: Sun Services knows that they are stretching their workforce too thin. There are photographs of supervisors doing cleaning work. This is not in their job description; they have to cover for workers in situations when it is already impossible for the workers to complete the job.

Sun has been pressured by Wesleyan University in their contract – and in further talks since then – to make these cuts. Wesleyan has attempted to ease the situation by making almost empty appeasements. At the end of last summer, 10 workers were going to be laid off workers and USLAC fought hard and convinced the University not to force Sun to make these cuts immediately, arguing that the work force would decrease by attrition as people retire and leave.  This, however, is not a solution. This “victory”  for workers only bought them a little more time before their already rigorous and thankless jobs become absolutely unrealistic.

The labor laws surrounding these issues are very weak; they mostly protect the preexisting contract. The problem is that the contract between Sun Services and Wesleyan University may have offered some things that were a little too good to be true, and, in every case, the workers are the ones being squeezed and bent over backwards in order to give Wesleyan everything that the University asks. They are the people with the least power, and also those that have the most to lose. They were not even allowed in the room during the negotiation the decided the future of their jobs. These are the people who know the reality of what this job takes, and their input was not taken into consideration. [BZOD Note: These statements refer to the contract transfer between ABM Industries and Sun Services. For more, see thisthis, and this.]

I have heard from some in the Wesleyan administration that workers should be grateful that they have jobs at all, and that they should appreciate everything that Wesleyan has done to prevent lay-offs. I refuse to take part in this self-righteous master mentality. I am disgusted by it. Workers have often said to me, “I’m a person, I’m not a slave.”

The current plan is for me, some union representatives, and Sun management to oversee workers in the first weeks that the reorganization is implemented.  The union and USLAC will be collecting hard data to prove that many of these new positions are not doable within the workday. With that information, the union will be able to file a class-action grievance against Sun Services that they are in violation of Article 10 of the contract between service employees and cleaning contractors, which states that no employee shall be assigned an unreasonable workload.  The company will legally be forced to make changes (probably by hiring more positions) in order to rectify this wrong.

There will certainly be campus-wide action when students get back in the fall. I am working with their union to make this action as effective as possible. Custodians will continue to make a stand during their lunch break; their contract does not permit them to strike, but they are able to use their lunch breaks to get attention for the cause.

As community members, we all need to step up and take better care of the facilities and clean up some of our own messes. For those community members who don’t care much about the workers cause, I am confident that the difference in the level of cleanliness at Wesleyan next year will be noticeable, and will be incentive enough to support our custodial workers.

The union is encouraging workers to do only what they can in the eight hours – not to rush and work faster than they otherwise would – and, if they are given warnings, to take up grievances through the union. They should not be able to be laid off while the warnings in question are being arbitrated through the grievance process. But I have given up assuming that I know what will happen, because I know what should happen legally.

Alma alludes at the fact that, when Wesleyan changed contracts from ABM Industries to Sun Services on May 1, 2012, the custodial workers did not have a say in the matter. Problems arose last November, with custodial workers not being compensated for overtime hours (which may or may not have been a logistical oversight), not being notified of personnel changes, being pressured into working long hours, and not being compensated for gas used while on the job. The Argus reported on these problems last November, which ranged from dismissal of workers who were not notified in advance…

In addition to alleging lack of compensation for overtime, workers contend that the Sun Services management has also recently posted openings for five positions without properly notifying workers. According to several sources, two of the positions that are now open were until recently filled by workers who are currently on sick leave and who did not receive prior notice of their dismissal. According to Ruiz, some of these positions now include responsibility for additional buildings or changed hours.

…to being overworked.

According to the workers who were interviewed, their main concerns are that they are not being compensated for overtime or being properly notified of personnel changes, and that the extended hours they have received are overburdening the staff. Aranda said that she would like to see Sun Services hire additional personnel, because many of them are working 36 hours a week, and they are often responsible for cleaning three or four buildings in one shift.

“There are three people working in the Butts [Butterfield dorms], Butts A, B, C—three people for the whole [complex],” Aranda said.

The workers also noted that the University does not reimburse workers for gas used in the course of their jobs. Several workers described having to clean several buildings that are on opposite sides of campus during one shift. In order to complete their duties on time, and in case of inclement weather conditions, the workers sometimes use their own vehicles to get from location to location. The workers say that they are either forced to walk across campus multiple times or else spend their own money on gas.

The workers say that the expansion of the number of buildings they are required to clean, as well as the geographic dispersement of these buildings, has resulted not only in stress for the workers but also in cleaning work that is not up to their or the University’s standards. The workers say that there is simply not enough time in their shifts to do their work as well as it needs to be done.

How can we get involved in helping those employees who keep our University clean and functioning? Once students return to campus, USLAC will be organizing campus-wide student efforts to secure better rights for University workers. In the meantime, there is a Change.org petition by alumni aiming to stop financial contributions to the University until employees are treated better. While there are many debates about the efficacy of withholding donations (consider the comments on this similar post), it is certainly worth signing in solidarity with campus workers.

For more on USLAC and past labor issues at Wesleyan, check out the related posts below. Of special note are the article by The Middletown Press about the custodian protests, the article “Custodial Workers Allege Lack of Pay” in The Argus, and the Wespeak from 2012 demanding better conditions for custodial workers – a Wespeak that received over 700 signatures. Also linked below are past petitions on behalf of custodial workers and background on the various conflicts between the workers and their employers.

Related Posts:
Change.org: Petition to The Wesleyan Fund & University Relations department: Stop Sun Services’ Layoffs and Transfer Their Management
The Middletown Press: Wesleyan custodians decry conditions, cuts
The Middletown Patch: Wesleyan Custodians Protest Working Conditions, Employee Cuts
The Argus: Custodial Workers Allege Lack of Pay
The Argus, Wespeak: Support Wesleyan’s Janitorial Staff
Sign Petition to Save Wesleyan’s Custodial Workers
Come to a U.S.L.A.C. Meeting… or Two or Three
Thank the Janitors Today
The Argus: Sun Services Wins Custodial Contract
The Argus: ABM Contract Up for Grabs: Custodians Report Increased Workloads, Students React
Support Wesleyan’s Janitorial Staff – PETITION

  • Middletownie

    Sun Services just suspended the Union Steward on trumped up charges of “disrespecting:” her supervisor, when she was simply trying to ensure a safe work place. SUN Services management are deplorable and so not care about workers rights. It appears union leaders representing sun workers are in cahoots with the management at SUN. Who can help these workers struggling for respect and a safe work place?

  • johnwesley

    This puts the desire on the part of the university to sell its properties north of Washington into perspective. Wesleyan owns a lot of small structures that it keeps largely for their aesthetics and the small town feeling they lend to the neighborhood, but they are expensive to maintain. Even Williams, once the personification of a small college hidden among village residences, has slowly embraced the monumental gesture, as witness its own efforts at campus redesign.
    IMHO it’s probably a mistake not to have a night shift. Cleaning a building takes twice as long when there are users under foot.

    • BZOD

      The night shift is being phased out in favor of a 4:00 AM – 12:00 PM shift – which is questionably better, but workers seem to be in favor. Also, keep in mind that it’s easier to clean when you actually have sunlight than when you do it in the dead of night.

      • guest

        4:00 AM – 12:00 PM shift is NOT better and workers are NOT !!! in favor. **** PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION ON CHANGE.ORG **** Thank You.

  • Student ’14

    Thank you for such a comprehensive report!

  • BenDoernberg

    I have posted the Middletown Press article to the Wesleyan FB page, and I would suggest that others do the same.

    http://www.middletownpress.com/articles/2013/06/16/news/doc51bb80aaa9962128256134.txt?viewmode=fullstory

    https://www.facebook.com/wesleyan.university

  • Middletownie

    thank you so much for such a thorough report on this frustrating situation!

  • –++–

    thank you for this thorough post!