Custodians fight U’s new system


Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Will Frank pushed his cleaning cart down the empty hallways of Nicholson Hall, stopping occasionally at open offices to make small talk with familiar staff.

After eight hours of scrubbing, tidying and visiting with his “customers,” a job he’s held at the University of Minnesota for five years, Frank single-handedly cleaned the building’s first and second floors.

But come August, that will change, and some custodians aren’t happy.

The University’s Facilities Management is switching to a new cleaning system in which custodians will no longer be cleaning entire areas by themselves; instead they’ll clean as teams.

The change has many custodians irked, as they take pride and satisfaction in having their own areas to clean. Under the new system, a group of workers would tackle an area, divvying up the different tasks.

Teamsters Local 320, the labor union that represents the custodians, has filed a grievance with the University, claiming there has been a violation of contract.

Anticipating budget cuts, the University will cut 52 custodial positions to bring the Twin Cities campus staff from 477 to 425. The switch to so-called “team cleaning” is a method of maintaining cleaning standards with fewer staff, Mike Berthelsen, Facilities Management associate vice president, said in an email.

Custodians have placed bids according to seniority on specific cleaning areas since 1973, with the first contract between Facilities Management and the union.

For example, senior custodians might ask to clean buildings with fewer bathrooms or Morrill Hall, where senior University officials’ offices reside, said Sue Mauren, a former University employee who has been involved in the union for more than 30 years.

Facilities Management believes their new bidding process for team cleaning follows a 2001 memorandum of understanding agreement between the University and the union, but the union thinks differently, Berthelsen said.

Mauren said she suggested the University negotiate with custodians to offer them increased pay or job security in exchange for cooperation with the new cleaning system, but Facilities Management declined.

The union filed its grievance against the University in early June. Since the filing, the two parties have completed two steps in the grievance process. If an agreement can’t be reached after step three, the issue will be brought before an arbiter.

It is always the University’s goal to negotiate with the union, said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel.

Custodian Will Frank mops a bathroom floor Thursday at Nicholson Hall

‘Absolutely not’

Facilities Management began exploring the concept of team cleaning last year. Berthelsen asked Mauren how the custodial staff would react if facilities management implemented the system.

Mauren said she knew custodians weren’t going to like the change.

“We said, ‘Absolutely not.’ It violated our contract — and it would be a really horrible way to spend your day,” Mauren said.

“They never asked the custodians [for input] … I’ve never seen the custodians upset as they are right now.”

Facilities Management hosted Q-and-A sessions  for custodians in May, but Mauren said this was after it already decided to make the change.

During the sessions, Berthelsen said Facilities Management had “lively discussions” with custodians and, as more information was laid out, there was less concern.

“Change always brings a certain amount of anxiety, which we are trying to relieve by sharing information,” he said.

Joe Warhol, a union negotiating committee member, previously worked in a team cleaning system at the University of Minnesota’s Medical Center, Fairview. Teams of four or five cleaned patients’ rooms, but the system did not last long. He called it a “colossal failure.”

Warhol said the team cleaning failed at the hospital because it was “disruptive” to the patients to have four or five custodians come in the room at different times, thus garnering complaints from patients’ families.

The changes

Right now, Frank splits all cleaning duties for Nicholson Hall with another custodian.

With the new system, he could be assigned to vacuum for his entire eight-hour shift.

Shift times will also change. Instead of a 3:30 p.m.-to-midnight shift, Facilities Management will make it from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.

For three months starting in August, the cleaning roles will switch on a weekly basis to give members time to develop their own cleaning techniques, Berthelsen said. After that period, Facilities Management will determine how to best rotate duties.

Along with other custodians, Warhol, who joined the custodial staff in 1996, is concerned about repetitive strain injuries from performing the same task every day for a week.

Jim Reinhardt, president of Minnesota Rehabilitation Services, a company that helps injured workers recover, said the cleaning injuries he’s seen mostly come from heavy lifting. Generally, custodians don’t do repetitious work, he said, because many companies intentionally vary employees’ work duties to avoid such injuries.

Certain techniques, like not twisting over and over while vacuuming, can help prevent injury if repetitive tasks are necessary, Reinhardt said.

Berthelsen said to avoid injuries, Facilities Management will train each custodian on how to properly use the equipment.

Losing friendships

Over the years, custodians have the opportunity to work and develop relationships with people in their cleaning areas, Mauren said.

With the new system, instead of working independently, feeling a sense of ownership and having a relationship with customers, “[the custodians] are going to be considered a machine,” Mauren said.

Derk Renwick, an administrator in the Classical and Near Eastern Studies department, interacts with Nicholson custodians Frank and Wayne Durst daily.

If Frank and Durst were to leave Nicholson once team cleaning began, Renwick said: “It would be terrible. I’d miss my guys. Will and Wayne bring a personality to this place.”

Even though he could lose the relationships he has built at Nicholson, Frank said he’s OK with it. “I can adjust. I do what I gotta do.”

Turning a corner in Nicholson, Frank crossed paths with Durst. Durst met Frank with a joke and the two burst into laughter.

“It helps if you have a good working partner with you,” Frank said between laughs.

Durst has worked at the University since 1979 and said he’s not worried about the changes.

“Change is something that happens to our lives,” he said. “We’re custodians. We clean bathrooms, take out trash, lock the building, vacuum — that’s our job.”