Most have left, but they’re still around. Meet the essential workers keeping the University running.

Monday, April 13, 2020 - 6:51pm

Though U-M is largely empty, essential workers are still keeping it running.

Though U-M is largely empty, essential workers are still keeping it running. Buy this photo
Olivia Cell/Daily

The University of Michigan feels like a ghost town.

In any normal year, April might be one of the most active months on campus. As the weather warms up, students cautiously come out of hibernation. The Diag comes alive with picnickers and hammockers, resembling stock photos of an idyllic college campus. This is when freshmen venture down to Blank Slate to get their first ice cream scoops of the calendar year and when seniors frolic in caps and gowns, showing their families around a campus they have called home for four years. 

Instead, campus is almost entirely empty, which Music, Theatre & Dance and LSA sophomore Michael Hu, a student transit coach operator, said feels both terrifying and surreal.

“Seeing the places that you’re so used to being filled with people, some of these areas you just never have seen without people,” Hu said. “And it’s definitely a crazy sight to see — the places are completely empty.”

Since classes shifted online in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak, students were urged to go home unless they “truly have no other alternatives.” Most students have left campus, leaving closed libraries and other University buildings behind. Following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home executive orders, almost all University faculty and staff have been told to work from home as well. 

In response to uncertainties resulting from the pandemic, the University created an 80-hour “U-M COVID-19 Paid Time Off” bank on March 13 for all full-time employees for any COVID-19 related scenario. Starting April 1, the Federal Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act provides employees an additional 80 hours of PTO on top of the U-M COVID-19 bank. Michigan Medicine employees who need to self-isolate after contracting the virus are also eligible for a 120-hour time off work bank in addition to the other two banks.

However, “certain employees designated as critical to infrastructure or public health and safety” continue to report in-person to work. Some are our custodians, the individuals who do the work behind reassurances from numerous University-affiliated offices that cleaning protocols have increased. Some are our dining hall staff, making sure students who remain in the residence halls can still depend on takeout meals. And some are our bus drivers, ensuring no matter how disorienting the world may get, you can still miss the bus to North Campus. 

Here are some of the many University essential employees, as they share how COVID-19 has affected their lives, and what they want University students to know. 

Custodial Services

According to an email to The Daily from Lukeland Gentles, custodial and grounds services director, the department is currently operating at approximately 30 percent capacity. Gentles wrote that staff have upped cleaning and disinfection of high-touch services, such as doorknobs and handles, light switches, elevator buttons, handrails and drinking fountains.

When a positive case is reported on campus, Gentles wrote the team works with the Environment, Health and Safety Department to provide quick-response cleaning. Though the team regularly checks the majority of campus buildings, which Gentles wrote still have some level of activity, the team prioritizes areas critical to the University’s mission such as those which support essential research, animal care and remote learning.

To protect custodians on the job, Gentles wrote the department provides personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves as well as training on how to use this equipment. According to Gentles, anyone who is sick is encouraged to stay home.

“Our custodians play an essential role in slowing the spread of COVID-19 on campus,” Gentles wrote. “They are motivated about supporting the university. There is some anxiety, and like all of us, they worry about contracting the virus. We do as much as we can to mitigate the risk. We really appreciate their dedication to keeping this university operational.”

Contrell Cooper, University custodian

Contrell Cooper, University custodian

Contrell Cooper, University custodian Buy this photo
Courtesy of Contrell Cooper

As of April 1, Contrell Cooper has been working at the University for exactly 20 years. He spent his first 17 years at the Michigan Union and when it closed for renovations, his move to East Quad was supposed to only be temporary. But Cooper decided to stay.

“And what motivated me to stay where I’m at and why I like it so much, my birthday had came up,” Cooper said. “It was December 12. So, you know, I get to work and whatnot. And I see this birthday card on my custodial door… And all my students, they gave me some lovely birthday cards, cards that they made and stuff like that. It really, really made me feel good.”

Starting March 20, Cooper decided to take two weeks off from the 80-hours paid time bank. When asked if he ever felt nervous going to work in light of the pandemic, Cooper said he both was and wasn’t. 

“I will say this, in a way I was, but in a way I wasn’t,” Cooper said. “And the reason why I said in a way I was because I just wanted to make sure that students knew exactly what was going on. And the other part of that question, we were pretty prepared for everything that was coming our way.”

Cooper said he feels protected while working, as he never takes off his gloves. When asked if he has felt there’s been more work required of him and other custodial staff now that keeping the campus clean is a health priority, Cooper said he thinks additional work is necessary.

“I think it’s good that we have to put in extra work because we try to keep everybody safe,” Cooper said. “And I thought it was a good idea for them to tell us to basically step our game up.”

During the school year, Cooper said he bonded with all the students who lived on the floor he was responsible for.

“I’m so used to everybody, every time I came to work, somebody said ‘How you doing Cooper?’” Cooper said. “I call everybody on my floor my little brothers and my little sisters.”

When students began to move out of the residence halls, Cooper said it upset him to see his students leave, even though he knew it was for the best. However, he said he hopes to see students moving in once again in the fall.

“I wish I could have videotaped, I mean, people was crying, giving me hugs, like they didn’t want to leave,” Cooper said. “And I didn’t want to see them leave… And I know I’m jumping the gun when I say this, but I can’t wait until everybody get back… That’s my hope, that we could start on time and have everybody moved back and new students moving in. Because like I said, we can overcome this. We just got to stick together and just deal with what’s coming in.”

Ann Washington, Stanford Lipsey Student Publications Building custodian 

Production of The Daily, like most everything in the University, has moved entirely online. Once filled five days a week with dozens of staffers until late into the night, the newsroom is now empty and inaccessible to most of the staff. Other publications in the Lipsey Student Publications Building — Michiganensian Yearbook, SHEI Magazine and Gargoyle — have vacated it temporarily as well. 

Yet, twice a week, Ann Washington, a custodian with A&G Cleaning and Janitorial Services, still comes to clean the building. She comes to take out the trash, sweep down the steps, vacuum and mop the floors. 

When asked if she thinks the building should be kept open, Washington said she will continue to come to work until her manager tells her to stop.

“It wasn’t a whole lot of work,” Washington said. “It’ll really be up to them. If they feel like it should be closed, then they can close it. But with me, I don’t have no say. So how long it can stay open or anything like that, I just know as long as it’s running, I have to go to work. I know that, that’s all I know.”

However, Washington said she isn’t afraid of contracting COVID-19 by cleaning the Lipsey Student Publications Building because she knows not many people frequent the building anymore. To protect herself, she sprays Lysol as she enters the building and wears gloves and a mask. 

If she were to have to clean a building frequented by a lot of people, Washington said she would not go to work. Until then, Washington said she wants students who usually use the Lipsey Student Publications Building to know she is ensuring the building is safe and healthy for students when they return. 

“I’m going to make sure that when you guys do come back in that building, I’ve been disinfecting that building real good,” Washington said. “I’ve been disinfecting everything in there for just in case. I’m trying to keep everything safe and healthy for all of us… I have to look out for you guys, I have to look out for me, I have to look out for everybody in that building, and I don’t mind.”

Transit Services

Lisa Solomon, communications manager for Logistics, Transportation & Parking, wrote in an email to The Daily that about one-third of the department’s staff are still reporting to work on campus. 

“Like other units within Facilities & Operations, Logistics, Transportation & Parking continues to perform critical and essential university functions and in support of operations at Michigan Medicine during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Solomon wrote.

Solomon wrote essential services provided by transit employees include transporting front-line employees such as those at Michigan Medicine, moving materials and equipment to Michigan Medicine and providing waste management for the campus.

To protect employee safety, the department has implemented a variety of features on the bus system. Passengers can only board through the rear door, and the department is in the process of installing plexiglass dividers between the driver and passenger areas of the buses to further minimize contact.

Buses are being cleaned with Environmental Protection Agency-registered antimicrobial products for use against the novel coronavirus and drivers are provided with masks and gloves. Most bus routes have been suspended with the ones remaining mainly servicing the Medical Campus as well as the Northwood route to North Campus. 

Ken Bowman, University transit coach operator

Ken Bowman, University transit coach operator

Ken Bowman, University transit coach operator Buy this photo
Courtesy of Ken Bowman

Though Ken Bowman is still working full-time, he said many transit coach operators have taken time off because they’re either showing symptoms or caring for someone who has contracted the virus. In fact, he noted one University transit coach operator passed away recently from the coronavirus.

“So, this is really getting close to home,” Bowman said.

Bowman said ridership has dropped significantly since classes were moved online, especially along the campus routes, which have mostly been canceled. Yet, when asked if he feels nervous reporting in-person to work, Bowman said he is not because he knows his work is important, especially to support front-line employees. 

“Not really, we realize the University needs the bus service, especially when it comes to the hospital workers getting to and from the hospital,” Bowman said. “So that kind of upped the ante a little bit if you will — gives you another reason to just do your job.” 

Bowman said he feels the University is considering his safety “probably as well as could be expected,” pointing to the additional sanitizing of the buses and the installation of the plexiglass shields. 

Though he said he has considered using his paid time-off, Bowman cited his work ethic and his knowledge that the department is short-staffed as the reason why he continues to go to work.

“I’ve been tempted a couple of times, but like I said, my work ethic is such that I know that we’re short,” Bowman said. “We’re really short because we’ve had a number of runs go down because we just don’t have the people. Even with the reduced service, we just don’t have the people available to staff it.”

If he ever felt uncomfortable going to work, Bowman said he feels confident knowing he would be supported in that decision.

“The University is very responsive and very good about that,” Bowman said. “We’re continuously told to put our safety, our health and our family’s safety and health first.”

When asked if he had anything to say to University students, Bowman said he felt bad for seniors who’ve had their original commencement canceled. However, he reassured students that the buses would continue to operate. 

“I can’t imagine the blow that it must feel to go through all that work, everything and then to have commencement canceled because of some kind of illness,” Bowman said. “And it’s just a dirty shame. But, you know, I just want everybody to know that we’re going to be there. The buses are going to keep rolling, and we're there for you guys.”

Music, Theatre & Dance and LSA sophomore Michael Hu, transit coach operator 

SMTD and LSA sophomore Michael Hu, student transit coach operator

SMTD and LSA sophomore Michael Hu, student transit coach operator Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michael Hu

During the school year, Hu works about 15 to 20 hours a week, but now that he has less obligations, Hu said he averages between 20 to 30 hours a week. 

Similar to Bowman, Hu said he’s noticed a drastic reduction in ridership on the bus service.

“In an eight-hour shift drive you drive ten people, versus on a school day you can literally drive 1000 students,” Hu said.

When classes first moved online, Hu said he took a week and a half off to figure out his situation. Learning that the Logistics, Transportation and Parking Department had taken steps such as only letting passengers through the rear door and increasing cleaning helped him feel safer.

“Long story short, I think I was a little bit afraid at first,” Hu said. “But now, not so much, knowing that I have to take specific precautions to keep my wellbeing afloat.”

If he did not want to go to work for any reason related to coronavirus, Hu said he believes the University has made it clear he would not have to. As of now, Hu said he is mostly going to work to earn money and pay his rent. 

He also said he continues to go to work because he feels he is less at risk than other transit employees.

“A lot of transit staff is older and a decent amount of them are not working,” Hu said. “I would say we’re pretty understaffed right now. And if I’m healthy, I might as well do my part in hopefully transporting important people and alleviating some of that stress from some of my fellow employees that would be more prone to danger than I would be.”

Dining Hall Services

In an email to The Daily, Steve Giardini, MDining senior associate director, wrote that approximately 70 staff per day are working in two dining halls and one remote catered service for meal plan holders.

To protect employee safety, Giardini wrote that MDining conducts daily screening of employees before work per Washtenaw County Health Department regulations. Additionally, Giardini wrote that the number of staff on-site at any time is limited. 

Frank Turchan, campus executive chef for residential dining

Frank Turchan, campus executive chef for residential dining Buy this photo
Courtesy of Frank Turchan's Twitter

Frank Turchan, campus executive chef for residential dining, is still working full-time at 10 to 12 hours per a day, four days a week. Though he wrote he does feel nervous going to work, he is motivated by the need to take care of students still on-campus and the staff who support students.

“It is our job to take care of our students who are not able to go home and keep them nourished and comfortable,” Turchan wrote.

Russell Palmer, campus executive chef for retail and catering, is also working full-time and partially remote. Similar to Turchan, he wrote he is motivated by the need to provide for students on-campus who depend on MDining.

“The work of MDining is critical to the mission of Student Life, and I am honored and inspired to be a part of that mission,” Palmer wrote. “Though we face great challenges currently that could make anyone nervous, it is so important to take the necessary precautions to stay safe and calm.”

Daily News Editor Claire Hao can be reached at cmhao@umich.edu.

Correction: This article has been updated to change Student Publications Building” to Stanford Lipsey Student Publications Building.