NOTE FROM BZOD: We 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   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.
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 BZOD: I 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.
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 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