This Is Why Not, Part 1: A Guest Post by Cesar Chavez ’15 about the Custodial Staff’s Situation

Image from The Middletown Press article on June 14.

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NOTE FROM BZODWe got an email from Cesar Chavez ’15 a week or so ago asking us to post this letter that he translated for the custodial staff and also published as a Wespeak in The Argus. Those of you who weren’t on campus this summer or who weren’t reading Wesleying should make sure to check out this post, which is a comprehensive summary and description of what happened; these two [1] [2] Middletown Press articles; and this recent Argus article (thanks anonymous commenter!). In short though: Sun Services, Wesleyan’s contractor for custodial services, laid off 13 of their 60 workers at the beginning of the summer. This led to increased workloads for the already-overworked custodial staff, many of which are dangerous and impossible to complete. Wesleyan’s custodial staff protested through much of June and part of July, but stopped protesting due in part to pressure by Sun Services. The University, meanwhile, has deflected any questions about working conditions by emphasizing that the custodians are hired by Sun Services, and that Wesleyan merely hires Sun Services and has no direct and official contact with individual custodians. Of course, the University has considerable contractual leverage over Sun Services. It could use this leverage to push for humane working conditions, but has not yet done so. With that background, Cesar’s post:

I am writing this because I am angry, I am alienated, and I want 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 Sun Services, the company that contracts their labor (which, in turn, is contracted by Wesleyan) was adding unreasonable workloads to the custodians’ schedules, and that their manager and supervisors were harassing them. The following is a letter directed to President Michael Roth that she asked me to translate. 

Dear President of Wesleyan University Michael Roth,

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, our supervisors immediately give us a warning 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 degrees Fahrenheit—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, and these working conditions have caused some of us to suffer from suffocation and exhaustion.

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 constantly. They have also used derogatory language against us. During Reunion and Commencement week, we discovered that our positions had been reposted with three times the amount of work per custodian; for instance one position required one custodian to be in charge of cleaning the entire Butterfield Colleges. These workloads are unreasonable. Another position required one person to clean 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 to the harassment toward 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 the Associate Vice President for Facilities, Joyce Topshe, has made you aware of our working conditions. 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. Anyway, we thank you for reading this letter and hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,
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 of 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 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. Every day, these workers sacrifice their health to keep Wesleyan clean and running. And for what? So that they can clean up after we throw wild parties? So that they can be abused? 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 workloads. 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 WestCo. Stand in solidarity and 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.

NOTE FROM BZODI have included a number of related posts below. If you are interested in this issue, please read through them! We’ll also be having some more posts on the subject over the next few weeks.

Related Posts:
The Argus: Custodians Rally For Smaller Workloads, Increased Work Force
Wesleyan’s Custodial Workers Protest Working Conditions, Employee Cuts Outside Roth’s House on Lunch Break
The Middletown Press: Wesleyan custodians continue protests for better conditions
The Middletown PressWesleyan 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

  • Sun Services

    September 2013

    Sun Services ownership would like to respond to the allegations that have been presented here on the Wesleying site. Sun Services LLC has released information to the Middletown press in response to their request for comment on previous articles that they have published. To date the Middletown Press has not published any response that we have provided to them.

    The reorganization of custodial positions to day cleaning assignments at Wesleyan is part of the University’s ongoing commitment to being an environmentally friendly and sustainable campus. Many workers are no longer required to work overnight to clean the Wesleyan campus and are able to spend valuable time at home with their families. Sun has worked closely with Wesleyan, the custodians, and SEIU Local 32BJ over the course of this past year to achieve this reorganization. During this year-long reorganization process, no permanent Sun Services employees have been or will be laid off at the Wesleyan campus. Sun Services continues to bring in temporary employees to help aid the permanent employees during times of the year when workloads increase (i.e. summer clean up, commencement, etc).

    The custodians at Wesleyan are represented by a very strong labor union contract, which insures that their working conditions and human rights are not violated. For this reason Sun Services is not allowed to just reassign workloads to custodians. Positions must first be posted with detailed descriptions of work assignments and sent to the union for review to make sure they fall within the confines of acceptable industry standards for custodial workloads and that all positions are fair and equitable. Custodians were then allowed to choose by seniority positions that they would like to perform. During this process Sun Services met several times with the union and representing custodians to achieve this goal.

    Some of the parameters used in creating new positions included;
    · Reorganizing geographically to alleviate travel between sites
    · Equitable distribution of workloads
    · Cleaning levels and specifications required for each area
    · Industry standards for cleaning an educational environment as published in the APPA standards
    · The creation of a project team to help provide support and perform required periodic cleaning.

    During this transition, Sun Services management and supervision have worked closely with custodians to help address any concerns and has made adjustments in schedules to provide extra support where necessary. The allegations that Sun Services management and supervisors were harassing employees were investigated and found to be untrue. The supervision and management team treats all employees equally and with the respect they deserve.

    Sun Services has not violated any portion of the custodian’s union contract. Sun Services has also not violated any CHRO or OSHA laws. Wesleyan management has consistently followed up with Sun Services for information on all employee complaints during this transition to make sure all allegations are being appropriately addressed.

    It is true that custodians now have different assignments and many custodians are upset that there has been a change. It will take some time for employees to become familiar and comfortable with their new chosen job assignments. Sun Services will continue to provide support to employees during this time.

    Wesleyan students can also help the custodians during this time of transition. Many of the custodians are subject to extra work when students do not clean up after themselves. Most custodians will not notify us that they are required to clean well beyond the scope of work because of their relationship with the students. This causes them a great hardship and is work they are not scheduled to do. If Wesleyan students could recognize this and help in this one small way they could help immensely.

    Thank You,

    Sun Services Ownership

    • Alex Gecan

      Sun Services faxed a response to the Press office four days after
      publication of the Press’ most recent article pertaining to Wesleyan
      custodians.

      The Press called the Sun office directly for comment before the June 29 article and before a previous article on June 13. No Sun employee returned voicemails at any time until the July 3 fax.

  • USLAC

    JOIN USLAC

  • 15
  • anon

    Yep. Kind of awesome. Now can anyone verify what these workers claim about the contract and the violations Sun Services has made? Because this sounds way more important than the need-blind problem. This is basic human rights.

    • BZOD

      We’re working on a post about this actually. We’ll be talking with some of the custodial staff, and I’ve already talked with a few folks from Physical Plant about issues that the in-house custodial staff (who are facing a whole separate set of pressures – but directly from the University) are facing. We’ll try and get a post up next week with more information, and will be continuing coverage of this as info/issues arise.

  • AnonAlum

    Wait seriously — the student’s name is Cesar Chavez?

    • BZOD

      Your eyes deceive you not.