A custodial worker dusts the top of a shelf on the upper floor of J.R. Howard hall.
Photo by Ihsaan Mohamed

Company change, pandemic cause custodial staff stress

On March 16, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Suttmeier confirmed what many had predicted: an end to typical life on campus. The COVID-19 virus had turned into a serious threat, and Lewis & Clark was one of thousands of institutions nationwide that closed its campus in response.

For LC’s custodial staff, things were more complicated. Since 1995, the college has outsourced custodial services to a company called Skyline. As the pandemic spread across the U.S., the Skyline workers, like millions of other Americans, feared they would lose their jobs.

Another source of anxiety for custodial staff was the fact that LC’s most recent contract with Skyline was ending on May 31. Workers felt uninformed about the end to Skyline’s contract and feared that if LC signed with a different cleaning company, they would lose their seniority and benefits.

On March 14, conscious of the impacts that the pandemic could have on the Skyline workers, Associate Professor of Sociology Bruce Podobnik offered a custodian his personal phone number and business card.

Two weeks later, Podobnik received a phone call from that same custodian.

“He said (the custodial staff) had been informed by the company they worked for that they were being furloughed,” Podobnik said. “They were worried about losing their pay, losing their vacation hours and losing their healthcare coverage.” 

Podobnik began meeting regularly with the staff and sending updates to LC faculty and administrators. Some administrators, including Suttmeier, pointed out that the custodial staff were not employees of the college. To Podobnik, it seemed LC was casting custodial staff aside because they were not directly employed by the college.

“They deserve to be treated like full members of our community,” Podobnik said. “And the college shouldn’t just wash its hands of the situation.”

On May 30, Podobnik voluntarily created a GoFundMe campaign to support the custodial staff. Podobnik sent it to LC community members and many students began boosting the campaign through social media. However, citing LC’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, administrators declined to have the college, as an institution, publicly promote the campaign. Some administrators did choose to make private donations.

In mid-June, Podobnik emailed President Wim Wiewel and his wife, Alice Wiewel, to request that they “make a public, significant donation in support of the workers who clean our campus community.” Lauding the campaign’s success, Podobnik stated that it was “time for individuals of your stature in the community to step up and publicly join the effort.” Wiewel responded, via email, by acknowledging Podobnik’s good intentions but said he has “been bothered by the nature of (Podobnik’s) campaign, however well-intentioned, and some of the things (Podobnik) has stated.” 

According to Wiewel, Podobnik’s campaign had circulated inaccurate information about LC’s contract with Skyline and the workers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits. These factors led Wiewel to decline to publicly support the GoFundMe campaign on June 15.

“I do not wish to make a public donation or appeal,” Wiewel said in an email. “That also covers debating the matter publicly.”

Wiewel did not provide additional comment on his decision.

Over the course of June, 536 members of the LC community donated $24,802 to the 29 custodial staff, each of whom received a donation of $825. Podobnik described the experience of giving the donations to the custodial staff as “very emotional and powerful.”

Since 2005, the Coalition for English Education & Social Advocacy (CEESA), a student group at LC, has also focused on creating a strong support system for custodial staff. CEESA leaders often form close relationships with the custodians and are recognized as advocates by them.

In late April, two former leaders, Alexa Cid Carrera ’21 and Diana Pacheco ’22, were contacted by individual workers as they became increasingly concerned about the status of their jobs. Carrera and Pacheco began contacting LC administrators requesting information in order to formulate a plan to advocate for the workers. According to Carrera, neither she nor Pacheco ever received a response. Aware of the limited resources CEESA had, they began researching different organizations who could assist them more.

“We were trying … to connect them to organizations that could provide financial support and food resources,” Carrera said. “But at the end of the day, all they really wanted was to keep their job, that was their main objective.” 

LC began accepting new contract bids from cleaning companies in early June. A committee of administrators across all 3 schools was formed to evaluate each company’s proposal. 

Skyline was invited to make a bid, but chose not to. A&A Maintenance was ultimately selected by the committee as LC’s new cleaning company. In an interview, Chief Financial Officer and Vice President for Operations Andrea Dooley did not specify why. However, she felt confident in the decision because A&A is on a list of companies deemed responsible employers by Service Employees International Union, the union that represents current and former custodial staff.

According to an Aug. 3 release by LC, “A&A … hired all former Skyline custodial employees who applied for positions — approximately 90 percent of the previous staff.” It is not known why 10% of Skyline workers chose not to apply for positions with A&A.

In a statement to The Pioneer Log, Wiewel praised Dooley’s efforts in forming LC’s new relationship with A&A.

“The rebidding process and transition to a new custodial services company was handled very well by Andrea Dooley, our chief financial officer and vice president of operations,” Wiewel said. “A responsible steward of our financial resources, Andrea worked with a committee to secure A&A Maintenance as a partner committed to a diverse and inclusive workplace and employee wellbeing.”

After A&A was selected, some community members objected to the company’s use of E-Verify, a controversial service that checks whether employees are eligible to work in the U.S. Popular among political conservatives, E-Verify has been criticized for targeting undocumented workers, as well as a history of data errors. According to Dooley, LC ensured that A&A did not use E-Verify on any custodial staff currently working at the college.

“A&A did not use E-Verify in hiring the employees working on our campus,” Dooley said. 

However, Dooley is not aware if A&A plans on utilizing E-Verify on future hires. 

Another issue that arose was company benefits. Company protocol requires employees to work for a certain amount of time before they begin receiving medical benefits. A&A custodial staff did not have health coverage until the end of September, and consequently, access to COVID-19 testing. LC chose not to offer or require COVID-19 testing from the A&A employees, despite them freely traveling on and off the college grounds. A&A did provide custodial staff with personal protective equipment, including masks.

Dooley explained that, unlike students, A&A employees, as well as LC faculty and staff, are not the target populations of college-funded COVID-19 testing.

“We’re focusing our resources and our testing on what we perceive to be higher risk areas,” Dooley said.

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