The custodial staff protest outside of South College over the summer. Image from Alex Gecan’s June 14, 2013 article in The Middletown Press
This is Part II of a three-part series on the treatment of Wesleyan’s contracted custodial staff. For Part I, click here.
Part I of this post trilogy covered what it means that Wesleyan contracts custodial labor and the transition from ABM Industries, Wesleyan’s contractor for custodial labor until March 31, 2012, to Sun Services, Wesleyan’s current contractor. Part II (this post) discusses the issues that the custodial staff have had since the summer of 2013 and how both the University and Sun Services have responded to custodial complaints. Part III (which will go up tomorrow) covers the situation now, in late September 2013, and what we can do to help the custodial staff.
If you didn’t get the chance to read the first post yet, there are three particularly salient points that I would like to emphasize:
- Contracting custodial labor – as opposed to hiring custodians directly as part of Physical Plant – obscures blame and shields the University from bad publicity.
- ABM Industries lost its contract with Wesleyan in part because, when ABM added more buildings to its cleaning contract, they did not increase staff. This caused complaints from the cleaning staff, who felt that they were being stretched too thin. This is particularly relevant because the complaints of the custodians then mirrors closely the complaints of the custodians today.
- While Sun Services said they would not fire any employees, they tried to lay off 10 in August 2012. A number of factors, including a petition by USLAC signed by large numbers of students, prevented these cuts. However, Sun Services did not agree to hire more employees, but decided to cut staff by attrition – namely, when custodians left the job or retired, they would not be replaced. This is particularly relevant leading into this past summer because it means that, by June 2013, the workforce was already significantly smaller than it had been the year before.
It is in June 2013 that Part II of this series begins.
Part II: Problems, Protests, and Institutional Responses
Q: What happened in June 2013?
A: After trying to lay off 10 workers in August 2012, Sun Services made another attempt to cut both workforce size and costs. This time, following a time-tested formula, they enacted the change right at the beginning of the summer break – after most students leave campus, and before the Wes nostalgia rises around August. On Friday, June 14, about 40 of Sun’s 60 employees protested on the lawn near South College and President Roth’s house during their lunch hour.
Q: Why did the workers protest?
A: Over the course of the year, the custodial staff had been getting more and more stretched. Sun Services had, after all, agreed to decrease the workplace by attrition. This meant that every time custodians retired, they were not replaced. Tensions rose between Sun Services and the custodians.
In early June, new positions were released. It was these positions that sparked the protests.
Q: What was so egregious about these new positions?
A: Sun Services posted a reduced number of positions, dividing the same amount of work among fewer people. The workforce had already been stretched thin by attrition over the course of the year, causing friction between the custodians and their management. The new positions proposed cutting 13 of the 60 workers on Wesleyan’s campus, dividing responsibilities among the remaining 47.
Sun Services also pressured its workers into a catch-22. If the workers signed on and applied for the reduced number of positions, they would have to do more work in the same number of hours, and would lose legitimacy were they to file a grievance through the union. At the same time, if they didn’t sign, they would lose their seniority – meaning that, while those who have worked the longest at Wesleyan usually get to choose positions first, they would instead be assigned positions arbitrarily or at the whim of their supervisors. [The Middletown Press]
As if this weren’t enough, the new positions were only posted in English at first. For a staff that primarily speaks Spanish, this was a slap in the face on top of the injustice of the unreasonable new positions.
Q: How did the union respond to the custodial complaints?
A: The union, SEIU Local 32BJ, also found itself in a bind. Article 10 of the workers’ union contract states that “No employees shall be assigned an unreasonable workload.” This is problematic for the union on two fronts. The idea of a “reasonable” workload is inherently subjective, and is at the center of the conflict between the workers (who say their workloads are unreasonable), and Sun Services (who disagree). The contract also leaves the union unable to file a grievance unless they can prove that there is actually a discrepancy between the number of workers and the amount of work they are assigned. For this reason, the union found itself unable to do anything to help the workers until after the cuts went into effect.
Q: How did the University respond to the custodial complaints?
A: When Alex Gecan at The Middletown Press asked the University for comment, the request was bounced to Communications, which responded, “Wesleyan values the work that the custodial workers do to keep our campus clean and safe,” and referred Gecan to Sun Services. By pushing the blame to Sun Services, the University effectively made it sound like a) they are not aware of the problematic working conditions on campus, and b) that, even if they were aware, they don’t have a duty to uphold a reasonable standard for working conditions – that poor working conditions are the fault and responsibility of the contractor to resolve, not the University. Essentially, the University took advantage of its separation from the custodial staff to pass the buck.
Q: How did Sun Services respond to the custodial complaints?
A: Sun Services did respond to Gecan’s calls and voicemails requesting comment – but not until July 3. This was four days after Gecan’s second article, published on June 29, and three weeks after he first called them for comment on his June 14 article.
When they contacted him, Sun Services sent him a fax. On Wednesday, September 25, they posted the following in the comments section on Cesar Chavez ‘15’s guest post This Is Why Not. According to Gecan, this letter includes everything that Sun Services said in their fax with a few more added details:
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.
Sun Services Ownership
Q: How can the above letter from Sun Services be reconciled with the meetings, protests, and such from the custodians themselves?
A: Well, from my perspective at least, Sun Services does some impressive linguistic maneuvering in the above letter to avoid indicting themselves. While most of what they say is, strictly speaking, true, they frequently leave out crucial information. Let’s look at some of their statements in a broader context:
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.
This is technically true. Sun Services did release information to The Middletown Press after the time that Gecan called for comment and The Middletown Press has not published any response as of now, late September. However, the above quote is misleading. As Gecan points out in a comment response to Sun Service’s above letter, it was not until July 3 that Sun Services responded to Gecan’s call for comment.
When I talked to Gecan today, he said that The Middletown Press tries to keep its online articles updated as new developments arise. Because the Press was short staffed this summer, they did not have a chance to update the June 28 article with Sun Services’s comments. Gecan tells me that he might go back and update the June 28 article when he gets the chance.
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.
It is true that the night shift, 11:00 PM – 8:00 AM, was phased out. What this letter fails to acknowledge is that it was replaced by a 4:00 AM – 12:00 PM shift. Maybe this is better for some workers, maybe it isn’t. Either way, the statement that “many workers are not required to work overnight” is a little misleading since starting the workday at 4:00 AM is still well outside of normal working hours and, if the goal is to give workers more time with their families, it is likely not working particularly well.
During this year-long reorganization process, no permanent Sun Services employees have been or will be laid off at the Wesleyan campus.
While this is technically true, the fact is that workers – both in-house custodial staff and Sun Services employees – who have retired or quit have not been replaced. Thus, while no one has been fired, workloads have still increased dramatically.
Alma Sanchez-Eppler ’14, a USLAC member, pointed out another problem to me. Sun Services says they conducted a year-long reorganization process. Strictly speaking, they did; the Sun Services administration planned the reorganization for a year. However, the workers were given two weeks notice before the new positions were posted, and neither they nor the union was ever consulted in the development of the positions.
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 hiring of temp workers, rather than being considered an altruistic move on behalf of Sun Services, is actually a source of custodial complaints. Gloria Tobon, spokeswoman for the custodians, pointed out to The Middletown Press in June that five workers who were part of the union left and were not replaced by other union workers. The temps who replaced them make only $9 or $10 an hour, without the salaries and benefits of union employees. In other words, the custodians – who are treated poorly – are being aided by temps – who are treated even more poorly.
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.
Sun Services does not mention that they did not consult the custodians in developing the positions – even though they know the campus more intricately than their supervisors. Nor do they mention that custodians were threatened with losing their seniority if they did not sign on to the new positions in June.
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.
This adjustment requires the custodians to come to terms with the feeling of futility as they try to do jobs that are impossible to complete in a day – all in isolation, as oftentimes workers will be so far apart that their paths won’t even cross. Sun Services fails to acknowledge the emotional hardship that the new positions inflict on its workers.
This ends Part II. Part I was posted yesterday. Part III, the final installment of this series, will be posted tomorrow. It describes the custodial staff’s current situation and the ways that community members (especially students) can help.
BZOD EDIT, 9/28/13, 2:46 PM: I talked to Alex Gecan this afternoon and updated the section surrounding communications between The Middletown Press and Sun Services.
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Listed below are some related posts from a number of sources, listed in reverse chronological order. Unattributed links are Wesleying 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 Press: Wesleyan custodians continue protests for better conditions
The Middletown Press: Wesleyan 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
Pingback: Resolution 4.35: Supporting the Fair Treatment of Janitorial Staff | Wesleyan Student AssemblyWesleyan Student Assembly