Photo Essay: Custodial staff reflect on their experience during a global pandemic
The choice to reopen campus for the fall semester left many challenges in its wake, especially for the thousands of employees that work across the 18 different residence halls. The custodial staff, for example, was forced to adapt to an entirely new environment and routine because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Custodian Sherri Wilkes has worked in Bursley Hall for 25 years, with 14 of those years spent in facilities and the other 11 spent in dining. Wilkes has been especially affected by the onset of the coronavirus.
The area that Wilkes cleans, which includes the lobby, front entrance, public bathrooms and community center, is meant to be a two-person job. However, Wilkes' partner retired last year and hasn’t been replaced yet. The University is short-staffed this year, meaning Wilkes will likely continue to be on her own for the time being.
“It gets a little hectic, especially going back and wiping down all the door handles when you have an extra minute,” Wilkes said.
The work is stressful enough during a normal year. I arrived to interview Wilkes just as her and six other staff members were dealing with a urinal flooding in one of the back rooms. She told me that it took her over an hour to clean up the water, and that extensive floods like this are not an unusual event in Bursley. Because of the flood, the work she had to complete for her regular shift was delayed. She was just starting to vacuum at 8:30 a.m. instead of her normal 7 a.m. start time.
The usual challenges that go hand-in-hand with working in facilities, coupled with the added work that has resulted from the coronavirus has made for a challenging, anxiety-inducing semester for many staff members. Outside of work, Wilkes has had to deal with the recent deaths of three of her family members. Within the past week, her aunt and two of her uncles have died from the coronavirus.
“I have no problem telling somebody to put your mask on,” Wilkes said. "I mean, I hate these masks. I don’t want to wear them either. It’s just the way it is this year.”
Jennifer Balang, who has worked in Bursley Hall for 25 years, with 14 of those years spent in facilities and the other 11 spent in dining, feels that mask-wearing is an important step to curb the virus, but is “not scared about people being in [the bathroom] with masks on.”
“You guys choose not to wear yours; that’s your opinion,” Balang said. “I'd rather wear mine all the time.”
Balang cleans the bathrooms on the fifth and sixth floors of the Van Duren and Lewis halls.
“Some of us are getting anxiety,” Balang said. “I have a kid who has asthma. It was like, ‘okay, am I making a good choice to come back?’ But if I don't work, there's no income coming in. Physically and emotionally (we) are all scared. We have to face it. We have to go with the flow. If you get it, you get it. If you die, you die. You're going to die somehow.”
Wilkes feels similarly conflicting feelings to Balang.
“The man that lives with me has severe asthma. So it was kind of like, ‘do I be selfish or do I try to look out for him too?’ That was a pretty scary thing for me in the beginning.”
Because of the unknown inherent with the changing and evolving nature of the virus, many custodial staff members take extra precautions when they return to their homes after a day of work.
“In the beginning it was tremendously stressful," Balang said. “I couldn't even go to sleep (because) I was thinking about what was happening the next day. As soon as we get home we jump in the shower because we don’t know. We take our clothes off in the garage and leave our robe in there. We run to the shower to make sure everything is fine.”
For the custodial staff, the beginning of the semester brought many challenges — excess trash being the most obvious.
“Our [trash] was overflowing. We only had one small trash bin,” Balang said.
The University eventually provided more bins for the trash rooms on the residence hall floors. “It's been a month that they were put in but trash is still on the floor,” Balang said.
The increase in trash is largely due to the dining halls switching to takeout-only. The bins are perpetually overloaded with an assortment of garbage and recycling, causing many students to resort to placing their trash on the ground. To-go boxes and plastic cups are commonly seen in disarray, strewn across the trash room.
The overcrowded trash rooms make it hard for students who want to compost to make it to the compost bins that sit at the back of the room. Wilkes even admits that she doesn’t see many students utilizing the compost, or when they attempt to discard their waste in the compost bins, they aren’t actually placing a compostable item in the bin.
One of the most difficult unknowns for the custodial staff throughout this past semester was the possibility of contracting the coronavirus at any time.
Regular testing wasn’t provided for the staff, but if an employee felt symptoms, they had the opportunity to be tested through the University.
Balang expressed dissatisfaction with the fall semesters’ testing procedures.
“I would love to have (testing) every week,” Balang said. “Some of the chemicals we are using bother my throat. When this thing started going on in March, I said ‘do I have it because my throat has been irritated?’ But, I know when I go home and I'm not around that chemical I'm okay.”
Balang explained that after four months off work during the summer, her throat felt fine.
“As soon as we came back using (oxivir) again it started bothering my throat,” she said. “I'm not the only one complaining about that, too. But, we don't have a choice. That's the only way we clean this virus out of here.”
The University’s plan to reduce residential hall capacity for the winter semester brings increased anxiety to the custodial staff.
“Because of the situation right now people are worried,” Balang said. “We don't have insurance. We don't have benefits. We will get laid off. If we get laid off again, (we) are not coming back. People are getting anxiety and depression and I can't blame them because of the situation right now.”
Balang and Wilkes feel that the custodial staff has done all they can do to ensure that students are in a safe, clean environment.
“I have to applaud all the custodians and everyone who works here,” Wilkes said. “I believe, if we go size wise and people wise, we have the least amount of cases out of all the buildings.”