Meet some of the hardworking custodians in B.C.’s schools as they share their firsthand experience of chronic underfunding in our public education system.
It’s very hard to clean my areas in the short time that I have – only four hours at each school. The only way I can get my work done is to not take my breaks. I’ve been doing this since I started. It’s hard, but I don’t want to let down the teachers at the elementary school, or the kids. If I don’t vacuum or I don’t get a room swept or done, they’re coming into a dirty school. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place because if I take my break, things don’t get done.
It’s normally a two-minute walk to get to the secondary school, but in the fall when the bears are hungry I drive all the way around. I also drive in the winter, when it’s minus 30 outside.
I think the biggest improvement they could make for custodians is to bring dayshift custodians back into elementary schools. It’s huge because a lot gets missed now. We have to try to catch up when we get there in the afternoon. We need more staff.
The square footage formula with so many square feet each custodian has to clean does not work. For example, the Art Room takes a huge chunk of time. In our elementary schools every classroom has at least two area rugs. You need to vacuum and then sweep and then mop. And when there’s any extra mess in the bathrooms that takes more of your time.
It’s going to be really hard, or interesting, to see what happens when schools get extra classrooms, but no extra custodians. My area at the elementary school is getting a whole new classroom. That means 24 more desks that I have to clean and work around. This room used to be for student services, so it just had a couple of tables and didn’t take me that long to clean. Now it will take a lot more of my time.
Our high school is used a lot in the evening. It’s a constant, open door. There’s soccer, basketball, Brownies. It’s constant, year-round and there’s extra cleaning to do. The gym isn’t my area, but the kids are using my bathroom and they’re down the hallways. A lot of kids using the open door aren’t part of the groups going on. There needs to be more supervision for afterschool activities. When the gym is being rented out, the principals should be here to supervise.
CUPE 3742, Prince George Secondary School
Custodian, 28 years
I have worked as a custodian in many of the schools in our district. When I started in 1989, I felt that I had the hours to do the work that needed to be done. I worked as spare board, which usually involved working in two schools nightly. By 1992, I was working in two or three schools and as a result of this increased workload; I decided to bid into my own section.
In the mid 1990s, the work hours changed and this change included a 4-week custodial layoff during the summer months. This was our major cleaning time, and this layoff impacted custodians’ ability to do the job effectively. Custodians no longer had the time to wash all the light fixtures, scrub and wax all the flooring and to high dust. When classroom carpets were replaced with linoleum, this resulted in additional workload. Summer layoffs and cuts in hours have resulted in the reduction of custodians’ ability to complete a high standard of cleaning in our schools.
Cutting corners and rushing to get the job done can lead to job dissatisfaction, frustration and reduced personal safety. Custodial absences are not always filled, which necessitates that in-house custodians have to pick up double the workload. At one time we could expect additional staff to help with occurrences such as roof leaks and discharged fire extinguishers. Now, in-house custodians are expected to fit the additional workload into their day. As a matter of interest, I pulled one of my paystubs from 1992. I was making $14.95 an hour. Although the work that I am responsible for has increased substantially, in 28 years, my salary has increased by only $5.84 an hour.
I have seen the effects of numerous cuts and additional workloads in terms of added stress. The school I work in is the largest and most used facility in the district. There are always events going on after school hours. This also impacts “getting the job done”.
On another note, working as a day custodian, I enjoy the daily interaction with the students and staff. I consider myself fortunate in that I have the respect of the staff and students. When I bump into prior students who are now in their late 20s and early 30s, they still stop and chat.
CUPE 2098, Boundary Central Secondary School, Midway
Custodian, 28 years
I graduated from this high school. My kids graduated at this high school. The school district does the best it can for kids with the money the provincial government provides, but education is not funded properly. I’m from a small community and the school is a really important part of that community. Our kids deserve access to a good education. I’m proud of the work CUPE 2098 members do and how much we care. Cuts affect not only workers, but the kids as well.
I enjoy working night shift because you get a lot of satisfaction from being able to look around and see what you were able to accomplish. I’ve seen a lot of changes since I first started working in 1989. Custodians would work the whole summer. We went from all summer, to three weeks, to two weeks. Now with all the cuts we’re down to two weeks in the summer for the heavy clean.
With the cuts we just can’t do summer clean up the same. No lights get done anymore. Walls, you just pick and choose which ones you can see instead of washing all the walls. You get what you see. Lights are big, but after a while you get used to just turning away and say it’s not our job. It can’t be our job anymore. There’s no time. It’s nobody’s job anymore. The lights get full of bugs. You hope that they burn out sooner so at least when they change the lights the bugs get cleaned out. Now we only are able to scrub and wax floors once a year. You just sort of shuffle work around.
We also used to work five days a week. Now school is only four days a week. If a person sat down and figured out how much our pay has gone down, it’s big. We went from 12 months, to 10 ½ months, to four days a week. If I sat down and figured out what I’d be making if I worked full-time compared to what I’m making now, it’s huge.
In the past 5 years, many of the schools in our local have lost anywhere from one to eight hours a day in custodial hours.
For a long time, it was really, really, really hard to be able to just walk away and say that’s good enough. You just kept pushing yourself and pushing yourself and then finally it’s like ‘what am I doing?’ I want to be able to work until I’m 65. Finally, I just had to turn around and say it’s good enough and see if you heard anything back on it, if there were any complaints.
As in all custodian jobs, if you run into an ‘oh my goodness, we’ve got a couple of really badly plugged toilets’, then you know to cut corners that night in other areas. You have to do what you have to do. We’re the only ones who really notice. We’re the hardest on ourselves. We know that we went through that room real fast.
CUPE 4990, Quesnel Junior School
Custodian, 24 years
When the cuts started it was a little here and a little there, but it was enough to affect a new casual. I was a casual for six years. My first permanent assignment was for a two-hour shift. I was a single mom with two young children to raise so when I got a job at the school district, I was really proud of it. I worked a lot, picking up extra work where I could and I rarely missed any days. The problem with working night shift is that somebody else is basically raising your kids because you only see them on the weekends.
Now I’m working as a daytime custodian. In the morning, I get to school and I disarm alarms and unlock the building. I have three bathrooms to clean. In the winter, I shovel all the entrances and put out lava rock if it’s icy. By that time the buses are arriving and I pick up puddles and what have you when it’s wet. It’s normal stuff that you start to pick up the puddles and when the floor is dry enough for me to sweep, inevitably someone comes in late and they don’t stomp off their boots. You just get used to it. We do the best we can. We take a lot of pride in our work.
All of our elementary schools that had two shifts (eight-hour and a six-hour shifts) had the six-hour shift cut, so in those schools one person is doing the entire school. We were told there wouldn’t be time to do it all – so they said to lower the standards and only wipe up the desks from K to 3. As custodians we were concerned that there would be more illnesses as a result, because everything could not be disinfected or cleaned the way we want it to be. So we have to prioritize. We have to say disinfecting washrooms are far more important than cleaning somebody’s office. Certain things just have to go, like disinfecting doorknobs.
Community groups use our school almost every evening – everything from cubs and scouts to volleyball and roller derby, of all things. So there are lots of extra people in the hallways at night. The shift for night shift ends at 10:30 and sometimes the groups just finish up at 10. The night custodians often don’t have enough time to properly clean up after the groups go. It’s great that our school is so well used, but it adds stress when you can’t clean as well as you want to.
We all want to do a good job, but it’s incredibly frustrating when the cuts are so deep and you want to do things. And it’s not fussy things. It’s things like wash a wall here and there extra. You barely have time and we all have to do a little more administrative paperwork as well. You’ve got precious little time and you want to keep everyone happy.
To me, communication is key. Cooperation, respect. Those are all things that make you want to go and do your job every day.
CUPE 409, New Westminster Secondary School
Custodian, 17 years
The biggest change I’ve seen over the years is that maintenance is so underfunded. We lost three full-time custodians out of this school alone. Custodians are the only group of employees who don’t get replaced when we’re sick.
A lot of people in this district take pride in the work they do, but the effort isn’t recognized. Before we got one person back we were not taking breaks to get our area done. If you stopped working you got totally behind. We were getting burned out. That’s when accidents happen. You’re tired so you trip down the stairs or stumble, because you’re so exhausted. The thing is, most of us are conscientious and we want to make sure everyone’s room is up to standard.
You never know what you’re going to find when you come into work. It may be fine for a week and then you come in one day and students have had a pop fight in the classroom so there’s a sticky mess to clean up. When people come in the next day they don’t see what happened the night before. Instead you get a complaint that something wasn’t done.
Before all the cuts you were able to make a system for yourself and you could keep to it. For example, you might do whiteboards once a week or mop floors once a week. Now that’s impossible. Now you do the floors whenever you get a chance. That’s usually at spring break, Christmas, or during the summer because you just don’t have time to mop all the floors. It’s just not feasible.
People forget about the technology. There are way more computers in schools now. All this technology attracts dust and we need to clean it. We also do recycling now. So there’s more to clean and less time to do it.
A lot of people are conscientious and want to do a good job. I see a lot of burnout. Once you’re here for awhile you get the gist of things. I always try to tell people to keep their area clean because there may come that one day when you just can’t get to it. I want people to realize that the school doesn’t get clean by itself. There are custodians working hard to make them that way.