Campus dirt

2010-02-20T22:01:00Z Campus dirtBy Cheryl Hatch, Gazette-Times Corvallis Gazette Times
February 20, 2010 10:01 pm  • 

On a recent rainy Wednesday evening, Danny Arter huddled with other custodians who work at Oregon State University in a narrow, sheltered doorway, waiting for the key station leader to arrive and distribute their keys. His shift started at 9:30 p.m.

Arter, 59, has worked at OSU for six years and makes $10.39 an hour. His first stop on this night was the Child Care Center near McNary Hall.

Over the years, Arter has cleaned many of the buildings on campus. On his current run, he covers the Child Care Center, MacAlexander Fieldhouse and the Kerr Administration Building during his eight-hour shift.

This used to be a run that three custodians covered. But that was before OSU, trying to trim more than $11 million from its 2009-10 budget, cut $400,000 from its janitorial contract with GCA Services Group, the private company that handles custodial work at the university, on Dec. 14.

The contract amount with GCA was amended to $850,000 for January through June of this year. The cutback forced the company to lay off nearly 30 custodians from a staff of more than 90. The Gazette-Times was not provided with the exact number of employees who have been laid off.

Now, the remaining custodians are trying to adjust to the changes in their workloads. And OSU students and staff members said they're taking on cleaning duties that the custodians formerly handled.

Arter said that GCA believes the workload is "manageable" for the remaining custodians. But the janitors say it's impossible to do the job right with almost a third fewer custodians cleaning the same square footage. "The morale is not very high," Arter said.

Regarding the lay-offs, GCA officials provided this e-mailed statement to the Gazette-Times: "GCA Services Group is committed to providing our clients with quality service in the most cost effective manner. ... When budget cuts are required for custodial services, we must, undoubtedly, make difficult decisions concerning our staffing levels. However, we do this with empathy and respect for our employees, who we rely on to deliver the quality services for which we are known and respected."

OSU has about 3.5 million square feet of building space, according to Anna Roberts, a paid organizer with SEIU Local 49 in Portland, the union that represents the custodians. With GCA's reduction, the ratio works out to more than 53,000 square feet per employee. By comparison, Portland State University, which is serviced by Aramark, has 1.7 million square feet with 46 custodians, for a ratio of slightly more than 36,900 square feet per employee.

Arter pointed to the office of OSU President Ed Ray, on the top corner of the Kerr Administration Building.

"We would like to leave notes in there," Arter joked, noting he wants the president to know the janitors' challenges. "We're not allowed to have any contact with the occupants. Most of the people in here don't realize there's only one person cleaning this building."

Offices are now cleaned every other week instead of every week. All bathrooms on campus are scheduled for a nightly cleaning.

"I pulled 18 bags of garbage out of the (Kerr) admin building last night," Arter said, as he hauled eight large bags onto the loading dock just before 5 a.m., near the end of his shift. MacAlexander Fieldhouse awaited. An average night yields eight to 10 bags. "The garbage cans are full and running over."

‘Cleaning up for people'

Students and employees say they have noticed the change.

"Today I was in yoga, and I noticed the floors were really dirty," said Karina Escalante, a junior in psychology. "It's uncomfortable when you're on the floor. I was at Owen (Hall) today. The stairs were really dirty."

Employees have started taking on some of the janitors' tasks.

"Employees in printing and mailing have been asked to dump large amounts of trash and have purchased a vacuum for their employees to do the floors," said Maggie Neel, president of SEIU Local 083 in Corvallis, who has watched the situation. OSU employees say they are doing more cleaning: sweeping floors, emptying trash, cleaning mirrors.

Neel meets each quarter with Ray and Mark McCambridge, OSU's vice president for finance and administration. At their next meeting March 17, Neel said, they will discuss the layoffs and their impacts.

Dennis West worries that the employees and students blame the custodians. A shop steward with SEIU Local 49, West, 46, has been an OSU custodian for eight years. He makes $10.39 an hour. Because the custodians work for GCA and not for OSU, they are represented by Local 49 in Portland.

West cleans Weniger Hall and - like Arter - he's doing a job solo that three custodians used to cover before the layoffs. He has 11 bathrooms to clean every night. Three stalls, two urinals, two sinks in each men's room. West said that to properly clean only the bathrooms would take a good portion of his shift.

On Sunday nights, he also cleans all four auditoriums on the first floor, plus the research labs. He has four or five hallways and the main entrance to clean, including vacuuming the entrance carpet. He's supposed to sanitize all the touch points: light switches and doorknobs.

"And that's just the first floor," West said. "Every night of the week, I have a different floor."

The task is tougher because of the trash that students leave behind.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, for example, Milam Auditorium looked like the scene of a massive food fight: 20-ounce coffee cups and one-liter plastic pop bottles littered the floor. Goldfish crackers, pretzels and gum were strewn under seats amid a wide assortment of empty wrappers, while the large trash cans at each of the four exits remained mostly empty.

"In the past - when I had time to clean - when I turned off the lights, it wasn't the same room I'd come into. When you went home, you felt good about what you left behind," West said. "Now I feel sorry for what've I left behind and what I couldn't get to."

West remembers a favorite quote from his horticulture teacher, Dennis Haney, at West Albany High School. "‘If you don't have time to do it right the first time, when are you going to find time to do it over?' That's how I try to live. And that's what makes this so difficult."

"We say ‘custodians' because we do more than clean. It's hard for anybody that doesn't do it to understand. It becomes a passion," West said of his job. "We don't look at it as cleaning up after people. We look at it as cleaning up for people."

Copyright 2015 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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