Justice for Janitors

Chronicling decades of custodial mistreatment at the UW

Perhaps you were taking a walk through Gowen Hall and found the ground floor linoleum to be awfully sticky. Maybe you were in the back of a Cunningham Hall classroom and accidentally touched a disgustingly dusty windowsill. Or maybe your class in the Health Sciences Building got cancelled because of spilled chemicals. Regardless of the specifics, all of us have, at one point, encountered a situation that would have been prevented with proper custodial attention.

There are a number of reasonable responses and rationalizations for such a discovery. It is possible the custodian had not yet gotten to that room. Maybe the custodian was sick or on vacation. It could be that the custodians were loafing around, bitter at the nature of their jobs and the lack of respect they command. But more often than not, most of us probably just did not think much of it at all. Sometimes floors are sticky. Sometimes windowsills are dusty. Sometimes class gets cancelled.

Unfortunately, the truth behind the perceived failure to keep the entire campus as clean as possible on a daily basis is more sinister and complex. In the wake of the 2009 economic recession, the UW let go of dozens of custodians in a series of massive cutbacks. Despite the fact that the national economy has long since bounced back from the government’s laissez-faire treatment of banking institutions, those lost janitorial positions have not been reinstated.

Think of all the newly-constructed buildings the UW has added since 2009. We have seen hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the construction of west campus. Tens of millions more went toward Paccar Hall, which opened in 2010, and Dempsey Hall, which opened in 2012. And there is always plenty of money to go around to pay President Ana Mari Cauce’s unnecessarily high salary of more than $700,000. All of this upward expansion has to fall on someone’s shoulders, and in this case, it is the increasingly overworked custodians whose job it is to keep campus clean and safe for everyone.

To find out more about this drastic situation, I spoke with Paula Lukaszek and Salvador Castillo. Both work for the UW (Lukaszek as a plumber and Castillo as a custodian), but they also moonlight as the president and vice president, respectively, of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) Local 1488 union. Their shared, intimate knowledge of the situation is informed by both their experiences on the receiving end of the UW’s mistreatment of its workers, and their placement at the vanguard of the fight against the institution’s refusal to hold itself accountable for its irresponsible growth.

Lukaszek and Castillo will be the first two people to tell you that the UW’s maintenance problem is administrative and entirely due to a number of cost-saving measures instituted over the past several years. The aforementioned cuts to custodial staff have not since been properly rectified, and campus has only grown since then. This means that the average custodian needs to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time than they did previously, and the math is not adding up.

Custodians are not only having to cover their regular assignments, but they are also being tasked with cleaning other buildings two or three times a week on a random basis. These extra credit assignments are known as “open runs,” and they serve only to put further strain on custodians’ shoulders.

This is not the only perturbance hindering the UW’s maintenance and cleanliness. Another problem Lukaszek and Castillo pointed out is that safety training is incredibly lacking. Custodians are constantly being assigned to unfamiliar buildings and suffering injuries for it. The most common injuries are from tripping and falling as a result of being unfamiliar with the buildings they are assigned on their “open runs.” As rigid and moneyed as the UW bureaucracy is, it is doing a piss-poor job of preparing workers for distinct environments in a way that is clear and effective.

For Lukaszek and Castillo, this comprehensive training means offering custodians whose first language is not English the opportunity to receive health and safety training in their first language via an interpreter. UW custodians come from all over the world, and very few of them speak English as their first language.

This means that a custodian who usually works in Suzzallo Library can suddenly be assigned to clean a building with rooms that are full of chemicals and dangerous equipment. They are put at serious risk of hurting themselves, which, according Lukaszek and Castillo, is an all-too-common occurrence given the UW’s failure to proactively inform custodians of ways to safely conduct their job. Injuries like these could be preemptively dealt with if UW administrators put some money toward adequately training custodians in ways which actually make sense to them.

It is unknown how many custodians have been injured in such a situation because the UW has been unwilling to give WFSE any data on custodial injuries. They are not even giving them a detailed count of how many custodians there are on staff.

If you were to stop Lukaszek and Castillo on the street and ask them why the UW is dragging its feet, they would be blunt in telling you that the two factors at play are money and apathy. After speaking with them and hearing their accounts, I cannot see any other way except to wholeheartedly agree.

The UW is going to continue to overwork its custodians with its constant construction and reconstruction. In a 2016 report the UW commissioned from Sightlines, a private consulting firm, it is revealed that funding for preventive maintenance on campus falls well below that of its peers. It also reveals that UW maintenance employees cover far more square footage per full-time employee than its peers.

There is clearly a problem, and our elite administrators know all about it. Unfortunately, the workers who are trying to solve the problem are being stonewalled at every turn by this exploitative, greedy institution. The UW is clearly falling behind even as it throws more and more money at more and more property. And as rent continues to rise, making $15 per hour feels more and more like $5 and displacing custodians farther and farther away, the bubble will only increase in size. That is, until it pops.

Reach writer Jakob Ross at [email protected].