Why Dorm Showers Aren’t Getting Cleaned: An FAQ About Wesleyan and Its Contracted Custodial Staff – Part I of III

Part I | Part II | Part III

Image from The Middletown Press’s June 28 article

AR-306289965

We’re almost four weeks into the semester. If you’re a freshman, you’ve stopped getting lost while trying to find mythical places like “the CFA Hall” and “Home Avenue.” If you’re not a freshman, you’ve likely settled into the familiar rhythm of classes, group meetings, sports practices, rehearsals, meals, pregames, and parties.

But amidst all of this, you may have noticed something different. The United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) has been having a lot of meetings lately, for one. There have also been protests – including one at the evening football game this past Saturday, September 21. And if you’ve talked to the custodial staff recently, you may find that they are feeling pretty dejected right now.

This is as comprehensive a guide as possible to the situation faced by Wesleyan’s contracted custodial staff right now, compiled from articles by Wesleying, The Argus, and The Middletown Press; discussions with USLAC members; and conversations with custodial staff members themselves. Due to its length, I have broken it up into three parts. Part I is being posted today, Part II tomorrow, and Part III on Sunday. Part I covers the basics about contracted custodial labor and the transition to Sun Services. Part II covers the problems that the custodial staff have had since the summer and how the University and Sun Services have responded to these issues. Part III covers where we are now, and what we can do about the situation.

Part I – The Basics: Contracted Labor and Wesleyan’s Transition to Sun Services

Q: Who are Wesleyan’s contracted custodial staff?
A: They’re the folks in the blue shirts and aprons who clean almost every space on campus. The hallway and common areas of your dorms? They clean them. Your classrooms? Also them. Usdan, Summerfields, Weshop? Yup, they clean those too.

Q: Why do you refer to them as “contracted custodial staff”?
A: In the 1990s, Wesleyan had in-house custodial staff exclusively. This means that every custodian was hired and paid directly by Wesleyan. All of them were Wesleyan employees and were considered part of Physical Plant.

This changed sometime in the 1990s when Wesleyan decided to contract its custodial staff. This little detail is very important. Today, when you see custodians, they usually wear blue aprons or shirts that say “Sun Services.” Excluding about six in-house custodial staff who worked at Wesleyan before it contracted its custodial labor and have worked here ever since, all the custodians you see are officially employees of Sun Services – which, in turn, is hired by Wesleyan. 

Q: What benefits does the University gain by employing contracted custodial labor through Sun Services, rather than employing its own staff directly?
A: The most obvious answer – and the one that is morally easiest to state – is the monetary reason: someone in the 1990s probably thought, correctly or incorrectly, that it would be cheaper to contract custodial labor instead of maintain in-house staff. I don’t have historical evidence that this is what happened, nor do I have facts or figures to determine whether contracted custodial labor is cheaper. However, this is not because of carelessness or laziness, but because the cost factor is not important to the custodial issues today.

EDIT, 9/28/13, 6:01 PM: I talked yesterday with an economics professor at Wesleyan. I asked him why it would be cheaper for the University to contract their labor. His response was that Wesleyan can avoid paying the perks it gives to its employees when it hires contracted labor. While Wesleyan probably pays more per hour per custodian in wages than it would if it were to hire each custodian directly, Wesleyan has a pretty good – and expensive – benefit package for its staff. When it hires its custodial workers through a contractor, it doesn’t have to extend this benefit package to the custodians, because their benefits are covered by Sun Services. When the cost of this benefit package is factored into the wages of the custodians, it ends up probably being cheaper for Wesleyan to contract its custodial staff (though in absence of wage data, it’s hard to be sure).

Q: Okay, I’ll bite. If the benefit to employing contracted custodial labor as opposed to in-house staff is not cost, what is it?
A: There are three rather insidious benefits to employing contracted custodial labor. The first of these benefits is that, by hiring custodians through a contractor, Wesleyan insulates its students, staff, and faculty from the custodial staff. The second is that, by employing contracted custodial labor, Wesleyan is able to distribute, and ultimately avoid, blame for working conditions and workplace problems. Finally, Wesleyan is able to protect its reputation better than if it employed its own custodial staff. These three “benefits” are intricately linked.

Q: That one-line explanation isn’t sufficing. Elaborate on the first one. How does using a contractor insulate students, staff, and faculty from the custodians?
A: Consider this. If you are, say, writing a piece for The Argus, or Wesleying, or The Middletown Press about issues faced by Physical Plant employees at Wesleyan, you can go onto Wesleyan’s website. You could click to the directory and get the emails of everyone in the department. You could contact someone in Physical Plant to discuss the issue without knowing a single name.

However, if you’re writing an article about the contracted custodial staff, you won’t find any of their names anywhere on the Wesleyan website. Why? Because they don’t work for the University; they work for Sun Services, which works for the University. They don’t have Wesleyan emails. For all intents and purposes, they are not part of the Wesleyan community. This makes it harder for the custodial staff to internally raise awareness and gain support for issues they are having, and, in the same vein, easier for Wesleyan to avoid discontent among students, faculty, and staff about the custodial staff’s working conditions.

Q: All right. What’s the deal with this second benefit, about distributing blame?
A: As I just pointed out, the contracted custodians aren’t employed by Wesleyan, but rather by Sun Services which is, in turn, employed by Wesleyan. This means that when problems arise, Wesleyan doesn’t have to deal with the workers or the union directly. Essentially, Wesleyan can pass the buck to Sun Services, who then figures out how to solve the problem on behalf of Wesleyan.

This is a mutually beneficial relationship for Wesleyan and Sun Services. When the workers protest and complain, Wesleyan is able to throw up its hands and say, “Hey, don’t look at us. This is a matter between the workers and their employer, Sun Services.” Sun Services, on the other hand, can throw up its hands and say, “Hey, we’d love to improve working conditions, but Wesleyan won’t give us enough money to make it possible.” When the problem arises, it’s very hard to figure out who actually has the ability to effect the necessary changes.

Q: And the third point? About Wesleyan’s reputation?
A: It remains free from the shadow cast by poor working conditions. It is surprising when a “socially progressive” institution like Wesleyan, whose president gives graduation speeches year after year about how the senior class needs to go out and change the world for the better, forces its workers into oppressive and impossible working conditions. It is not surprising when a service sector business in the free market cuts some corners to make a profit.

Q: Who employs Wesleyan’s contracted custodial staff?
A: Initially, Wesleyan’s custodial staff were employed by ABM Industries. However, on March 31, 2012, the University’s contract with ABM expired. The University accepted bids for new contractors and, in early April, announced that the University would contract its custodial work through Sun Services LLC instead of ABM, effective May 1, 2012.

Q: Why did the University end its contract with ABM?
A: In general, Wesleyan makes three-year contracts with the possibility of renewal. At the time that ABM’s contract came up for renewal, workers had a lot of complaints with the company’s management practices. At the same time, Wesleyan was looking to cut down on how much money they were paying for custodial services. So instead of automatically renewing ABM’s contract, Wesleyan opened the pool, provided some information – including a price range, the square footage of the campus, how many full-time equivalents they wanted to hire, and that they wished to transition to daytime cleaning – and invited other contractors to make bids. ABM lost the bid to Sun Services.

Q: What sort of things did ABM do to generate so many complaints from their workers?
A: In September 2010, ABM added ten buildings to its contract. Many of these were academic buildings and include Davison Art Center, Shanklin Lab, Hall-Atwater Lab, and Judd Hall. Previously, these buildings were cleaned by custodians from other companies and in-house custodial staff.

However, while ABM added more buildings to its contract, it did not add any new custodians. Instead, it redistributed the labor among the existing 56 ABM employees (for, while there were 60 union members working on campus, some were temps). This led to significant increases in workloads for the contracted custodians, including nearly doubled workloads for some custodians who received no additional pay or time off. When it became apparent that the University would be accepting bids for the custodial contract, USLAC wrote a petition – which was signed by 50 of the 56 ABM custodians – that emphasized some of the workers’ desires, including that the new contractor “reanalyze the current workload, not terminate positions, and uphold the workers’ right to unionize.” [Check out this article in The Argus for more information.]

Q: Why did the University choose Sun Services?
A: According to a comment by David Pesci, Director of Media Relations, in an April 12, 2012 article in The Argus, “the company was chosen based on their expertise, level of environmental sustainability, and management capabilities.”

According to Alma Sanchez-Eppler ‘14, a USLAC representative who was present during negotiations, Sun Services was the best contractor on paper and, when it came time for the contractors to present their plans, Sun Services was the obvious best choice. No other company’s presentation made it seem likely that workers would be treated well.

Q: What did the workers think about this choice?
A: At the time, the workers signed a petition, wrote a letter, and sent both to Joyce Topshe (Associate Vice President for Facilities at Physical Plant) saying that they hoped Wesleyan would choose ABM again. Their logic was that, despite the many problems with ABM, the workers doubted that any other contractor would treat them better; and that, at least with ABM, they knew how to interact and negotiate with the individuals within the company. In other words, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

Q: But they chose Sun Services anyway.
A: Yes. But Alma defended the University’s decision. “Sun Services just looked so much better on paper,” she told me. “The workers were probably right, but at the time I was optimistic. I thought that Sun would be better. In some ways, they have been. In other ways, they have not.”

Almost right after Sun Services was selected, it seemed like the workers’ fears were to be realized: rumors began to spread among custodians that Sun would lay off up to ten employees. However, both Sun Services and the union quashed the rumor, stating that no positions would be cut.

Q: Well… cool!
A: It would have been, were the rumor as baseless as Sun Services and the union made it seem. But there was more truth to the rumor than was initially believed. While Sun Services promised in May 2012 that they would keep all 60 workers on staff, they did an about-face in mid-August, announcing that they would lay off 10 of the 60 workers by September 1. Acting fast, members of USLAC collected signatures from Wesleyan staff and students and met with Joyce Topshe in August to demand that Wesleyan maintain its current staffing levels. They argued that the workforce would decrease by attrition as people retire and leave. While the workers were not laid off, Alma hesitated to call it a success when I interviewed her in June, saying that “this ‘victory’ for workers only bought them a little more time before their already rigorous and thankless jobs become absolutely unrealistic.”

wes-custodian-first-draftThis ends Part I. Part II will be posted tomorrow, and will deal with the summer protests and ways that the University and Sun Services have responded to the complaints of the custodial staff. Unfortunately, the “What can I do?” part of this comes on Sunday in Part III, which is a bit late. Because I want everyone to have the chance to take action if they feel so inclined, I’m going to spoil the surprises of Part III for you a bit.

If you would like to help the custodial staff, the best way at this point is to call Physical Plant at x3400 (or 860 685 3400 from non-campus phones) and register a complaint with Physical Plant if you see something dirty. It’s best to call between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM because that’s when Physical Plant is in the office. And no, this will not get workers in trouble. Physical Plant is documenting student, faculty, and staff complaints as data as to whether or not the new working plans are feasible. The workers are in favor of your calling Physical Plant.

BZOD EDIT, 9/28/13, 6:01 PM: I added a small paragraph toward the beginning about why it costs less for the University to contract its labor instead of hiring custodians directly.

* * *

Listed below are some related posts from a number of sources, listed in reverse chronological order. Unattributed links are Wesleying posts.

Related Posts:
The Argus: Community Members Rally for Worker Solidarity at Football Game
This Is Why Not: A Guest Post by Cesar Chavez ’15 about the Custodial Staff’s Situation
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 PressWesleyan custodians continue protests for better conditions
The Middletown PressWesleyan custodians decry conditions, cuts
The Argus: Custodial Workers Allege Lack of Pay
Sign Petition to Save Wesleyan’s Custodial Workers
The Argus: Sun Services Wins Custodial Contract
The Argus, Wespeak: Power and Hypocrisy at Wesleyan
The Argus, Wespeak: Support Wesleyan’s Janitorial Staff
The Argus: ABM Contract Up for Grabs: Custodians Report Increased Workloads, Students React
Support Wesleyan’s Janitorial Staff – PETITION

  • Unclear

    Wait, but aren’t a lot of Physical Plant employees contracted laborers? Or are they just unionized?

    • BZOD

      Physical Plant employees are directly hired by the University. If you go onto the Directory, you’ll see a drop down menu that subdivides Faculty/Staff by department. If you go to “Physical Plant – Facilities,” you’ll see emails for all the Physical Plant employees.

      Your confusion is because, while Physical Plant is not contracted labor, there has been a shift in the University to try and downsize Physical Plant and hire contractors to do the labor. Just as the custodial staff used to be in-house, the groundskeepers used to be in-house as well. Now the custodial staff work for Sun Services and the groundskeepers work for Stonehenge Landscaping.

      Both Physical Plant and the contracted custodial labor are unionized, but in different unions.

      I have a post in the works about the in-house custodial staff and the University’s recent reorganization of Physical Plant, so I will hopefully be able to answer any other questions you may have about this.