Following changes to instruction, housing and campus services and the departure of the majority of Occidental’s student body in response to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, essential staff members continue to work on campus, including employees in the Cleaning Services department.
Nationwide, cleaning and maintenance employees have faced layoffs as higher education institutions consolidate operations. Associate Vice President of Facilities Tom Polansky said no such layoffs have occurred at Occidental.
“No staff in housekeeping or anywhere in Facilities Management has been laid off, nor has there been any reduction in wages,” Polansky said via email. “The campus-wide hiring freeze and ban on overtime announced by President Veitch on March 31 applies to Facilities Management, as it does to every department.”
According to Polansky, the Facilities Department has adopted a rotating work schedule in an effort to minimize employee exposure while maintaining full wages. Two Facilities employees over the age of 65 have been asked to remain at home and will be paid.
“Having fewer students and less activity on campus made it possible for us to create a one-week on, one-week off schedule for cleaning staff,” Polansky said via email. “We hope this makes it easier for staff with children to deal with school closures, and gives everyone more flexibility to deal with the extraordinary circumstances we all find ourselves in.”
Cleaning Services employees interviewed independently mentioned the new rotation and said the college has informed them that they will be paid for the weeks during which they must remain at home.
Maria Guadalupe Rodriguez,* a Facilities member since 2003, said the department has mandated that employees wear masks and gloves at all times, disinfect as much as possible and maintain separation from students and other staff members.
“We have to be six feet, eight feet, away from each other at all times,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t even eat at the same table.”
According to Polansky, the glove protocol precedes the COVID-19 pandemic, though the Facilities Department has now stockpiled a three-month supply of N95 masks, gloves and cleaning supplies and increased its usage of the department’s electrostatic cleaning machine. Additionally, staff must not enter students’ rooms or assist students in moving their belongings.
Mireya Arellano,* a Facilities member since 2009, said she spent the past week disinfecting the rooms into which students remaining on campus will soon move. Arellano said the college has asked any staff member feeling ill to stay at home. According to Associate Vice President for Human Resources Randy Glazer, in the event that employees run out of sick days employees will be advanced time so that they may continue to be paid. Any changes to the sick leave policy will not be made until the renegotiation of the employees’ union contract next year.
Arellano said she was most concerned about the long-term effects of the virus, adding that the college has promised to keep employees updated as the administration monitors the situation week by week.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in a month or two months,” Arellano said. “Right now we’re doing fine, but we don’t know about further down the road. I am worried about job stability.”
Arellano said she sympathized with students remaining on campus who might feel isolated and expressed worry that the pandemic would continue growing.
“The situation makes me rather sad, both for the students and for us,” Arellano said. “I’m worried about the recent unemployment that’s affecting all of our households. And what also worries me a little bit is the uncertainty of what’s going to come after.”
Rodriguez said students’ hasty departures have left employees to discard items that students abandoned in common areas. Dorm rooms remain off-limits.
“Many didn’t come back to get their things. Those things remain in their rooms and the rooms are closed,” Rodriguez said. “So those rooms, we’re not touching them or anything, their things will remain there.”
Ana Margarita Calderón,* a Facilities member since 2002, said that each Cleaning Services employee now covers more buildings per shift, tackling each building with a partner at an appropriate distance.
“They’re taking care of us because they’ve mandated us to work separately … we’re not in danger,” Calderón said. “There’s almost no one in the buildings.”
Additionally, Calderón and others said Facilities employees have been given a daily $8 meal voucher — something that was not granted them to previously — though it is unclear for how long the College will continue to grant these vouchers.
Polansky said Occidental would continue to cover employees’ health care.
“There have been no changes in health insurance, which — as is the case for all college employees — is provided by the college,” Polansky said via email. “Because housekeepers are represented by Teamsters Local 911, health benefits are also covered in their union contract, which runs through next year.”
According to Senior Director of Student Wellness Sara Semal, Occidental employee health insurance plans cover coronavirus testing. In response to a college employee testing positive for the virus April 8, Semal said that employees are now mandated to inform the college immediately of any positive test result. Quarantine procedures were already in place for anyone who had been exposed or exhibited symptoms.
Teamsters Local 911 Senior Business Representative Carlos Rubio confirmed that union-represented Facilities employees will keep the same insurance plans they had prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rubio said costs remained the same, but said he wasn’t sure if they would rise by the time of next year’s insurance renewal process. He said Teamsters Local 911 has been in communication with Occidental.
“The college has not cut hours, jobs, benefits [or] pay and has been proactive in collaboration with the union to keep employees safe by following mandates and recommendations from applicable authorities,” Rubio said via email.
Rubio said that supply and demand issues might complicate testing.
“The college has an obligation under the law to keep employees safe,” Rubio said via email. “If someone needed to be tested for COVID-19 the college would have to follow the applicable protocol.”
For now, Cleaning Services employees are hoping the pandemic doesn’t worsen.
“More than anything, [we’re] following the rules in order to keep everyone, us included, healthy because we all have to return home to our families,” Rodriguez said. “We’re just hoping that this passes soon.”
She mentioned she was grateful to still have her job.
“I’m working,” Rodriguez said. “Thank God.”
Kathy Ou contributed reporting to this article.
* The author conducted and transcribed interviews with Arellano, Calderón, and Rodriguez in Spanish before translating them into English.