Custodial workers struggle in silence

When sophomore Haley Bicknell walks into her hall’s bathroom and sees vomit all over the stalls, it’s nothing new.For the custodial workers that clean up after students every weekend, it’s also nothing new.In fact it’s gotten worse — and they don’t feel safe complaining about it.Often, because of the various hierarchies in the University, custodians feel powerless and will not speak up no matter how bad things are, Katheryn Friedman, executive director of diversity and equity, said.”When you are at the bottom of the employment rung, you are new to a culture, you don’t eat if you don’t get a paycheck and you are saving to send money back, you are not going to complain about anything,” Friedman said.But this year, there is a lot to complain about.In L/L over winter break, several custodial workers got physically sick or injured from cleaning out private bathrooms which students are generally in charge of cleaning, L/L residence director T.J. Jourian said.”[It’s] disgusting. I am surprised students are not sick. We found mold in bathroom,” custodian Lulu Russen said. “We are happy to clean. It is our job, and students are very friendly, but this is not safe.”Students often drop bottles in Christie Hall stairwells, leaving broken glass everywhere — another safety hazard for custodians to clean up, freshman Ridhdhi Parmar said.”Every weekend I get reports that almost every building has excessive vomit and excessive feces everywhere that they have to clean up.” Johanna P. Brabham, manager for ReslifeCustodial Services, said. “It’s the bodily stuff that we are always having to clean up, and that’s just not very nice.”Sophomore Erin Hudecek said she feels students are too disrespectful and don’t think about the mess they are leaving.”People are getting sick from alcohol poisoning and they don’t care where they end up puking. It is a huge mess. People just don’t care, they think ‘that’s the custodian’s job so I don’t have to be clean,'” Hudecek said.”When push comes to shove, students are not behaving in a reasonable way towards [custodial workers],” Stacey Miller, director for Residential Life, said. “Whether or not you are polite, actions speak louder than words.”Miller said she is concerned because custodians consider students the customers and will strive to treat them with respect no matter what. Customer service is one of the most important aspects of being a custodian, Brabham said.”It’s important that we keep the students happy, because where would we be without the students and the faculty and everybody else that helps support us and our jobs?” she said.However, this idea of customer service also holds custodians back from voicing complaints, Friedman said.”[Custodians] are not going to confront [students] because they are the customer, and if they confront the student and the student makes a complaint about them, they think it is going to come back at them — and it will,” Friedman said.Custodial worker Sofija Puric said she thinks it is disgusting to have to pick up condoms and underwear.However, in regard to those same students who are leaving that mess for her to clean, she that said she really loves them.”But everyone is nice, it’s great. I never have any problems. Two, three years I am so happy with my students and my job,” Puric said.A difficult task for custodial workers is finding a balance between this customer service that their jobs depend on and the actions of students who are making their jobs harder, Friedman said.”They are making a sacrifice to be here and to provide for their family, and that is why they put up with everything bad that students do, there is a lot to lose,” Miller said.Many of the international custodial workers had advanced education before coming to the United States, she said.”They had jobs such as doctors, lawyers or pharmacists but have taken this job because degrees are not transferable or because of language barriers,” she said. “This is one of the ways they can provide financially for their families.”Education is another way in which custodians are able to provide for their children, she said.If you work at UVM on any level and your child applies and gets accepted, they can attend for free, and a lot of custodial workers take advantage of this opportunity, Miller said.In addition to the threat of losing their job, a cultural fear of authority keeps custodial workers from complaining, Friedman said.”Among the Vietnamese [custodians] there is an elder system, a collective system that says ‘don’t rock the boat, don’t get anyone angry with you or you will be vulnerable and you will lose your job,'” Friedman said.Women will come in to complain and say that their husbands and daughters told them not to say anything so that they don’t anger anyone and get fired, she said.To many custodians, the most important thing is to keep their jobs regardless of the circumstances, Miller said.”[Custodians think] ‘if we didn’t have a mess we wouldn’t have our job,'” Miller said. “That is an admirable way to look at their work, but on the other hand, students don’t have to make it so difficult for them.”