Cleaning staff in Swem Library angered by administration

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March 24, 2009

5:37 AM

Housekeepers in Swem Library have previously shared their lunchroom with industrial-grade cleaning solvents and a pile of mops. That room was converted to storage space at the beginning of this week, and staff members are now wondering where they can rest after hours of work.

Swem housekeeper and Union Shop Stewardess Colette Roots said the break room situation is indicative of a larger trend seen in buildings across campus: Housekeepers routinely being disrespected and ignored by supervisors and management.

“I have never ever seen a system this broke in my life,” Roots said. “They disregard people. Everything I suggest, they say is a problem. Things are going backwards for us. They never move forward.”

The “closet” break area was the result of a compromise between library housekeepers and management. When the official break room — a large sunny space on the second floor — started being used for library training this summer, Roots and other housekeepers started spending their breaks in the first-floor Starbucks. Students who study in the Starbucks complained they were being too noisy, so an alternate space was set up in the basement.

The basement room did not have any windows and only had space for one chair. A refrigerator and microwave were positioned three feet from a shelf, which held bottles of carpet shampoos, chewing gum remover, stainless steel cleaner and diluted hydrochloric acid. Mops and brooms were piled under a sanitary waste pipe.

“There’s no table, no nothing,” Roots said. “It has a strong chemical smell. There’s the mop bucket and everything. You see housekeepers standing there, and it’s not fair.”

Associate Director of Facilities Management Curtis Powell argued the closet space in the basement was never supposed to be used as a break room.

“There is not a room in the basement designated as a break room,” Powell wrote in an e-mail. “The break room is on the second floor. In the past there was a refrigerator and a microwave in the basement storage closet. The refrigerator has been removed, and the closet has been restricted to its proper use.”
Powell added that housekeepers were still welcome to use the second-floor space.

“Custodians have the flexibility to take their breaks in different areas of a building,” Powell wrote. “In Swem Library, the staff considers the custodians a part of the their staff and encourages them to use the library staff lounge.”

While Roots acknowledges the available space for housekeepers in the staff lounge, she says that housekeepers are often uncomfortable sharing the room with library workers.

“We talk about different things, and they talk about different things,” Roots said. “A lot of housekeepers feel like they’re being stared at, like they don’t want you there, but they’re sharing it with you.”

Management often provides inadequate responses to workers’ complaints, according to Tidewater Labor Support Committee member Cherie Seise ’10. Roots works with the student-run committee to resolve workplace issues.

“From what I hear, and not just from Colette, is management comes at it with the expectation that staff don’t really understand the problem, or that there isn’t really an issue,” Seise said.

While the housekeeping break room is presently at the top of Roots’ list of concerns, there are other working conditions she says are similarly unsafe.

Roots points to the fact that housekeepers are generally only allowed access to their assigned building as an example of dangerous working conditions.

“If you come attack me and I can’t make it to Swem, I can’t swipe into the other buildings,” Roots said. “They try to tell us that there might be theft or something, but they still would be able to tell who swiped into the buildings and who went in and out. We see them do anything besides safety issues.”

According to Powell, the current system is designed to protect workers in the early morning hours.

“The policy of issuing keys only for assigned work areas is in place because it provides a higher degree of safety for our workers during non-business hours than would multiple keys or open buildings,” Powell wrote.

Roots feels like several workers, including her, have been denied promotions for personal reasons rather than demonstrated ability.

“Hiring and promotion decisions are made on the knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience of the applicants,” he wrote.

The snubs Roots said she has experienced lead her to believe the College’s housekeepers are being treated as less valuable than other groups on campus.

“My mother was a housekeeper,” Roots said. “Back in the day, she always told me to be outspoken and make sure my rights were being respected. Here, they do not respect us. They can say they do but they don’t.”

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