‘How do you physically get that much work out of one person in a day?’: Custodial staff faces labor shortages

Following cleaning schedule changes due to COVID-19 — including more night shifts — the College has struggled to fill vacancies for custodial positions.

by Parker O'Hara | 9/30/22 5:00am

by Emil Liden / The Dartmouth

For the past year, both Residential Operations — which services residence halls — and Facilities Operations and Management — which services all other campus buildings — have struggled to staff custodial jobs, according to associate vice president of facilities operations and management Frank Roberts. 

Roberts said there were only two vacancies out of 47 positions within Residential Operations. However, he said the vacancy rate in Facilities Operations and Management is much higher, at around 15 to 20% out of approximately 130 positions. In addition to the custodial positions, there are vacancies in supervisory positions, which Roberts said impacts the College’s ability to coordinate work across campus. 

The vacancies reflect a larger trend of labor shortages in the Upper Valley and have put additional pressure on current custodians, according to Roberts.

“With low unemployment in the area, where the overall number of potential employees is lower than in a more urban setting — and with competition from many employers — this has [affected] us as well as others,” Roberts said. “Other impacts would include available affordable housing and to a certain extent the availability of public transportation.”

The custodial shortages have necessitated a shift in services, Roberts explained. 

“For example, we have reduced office cleaning in locations by request only. Another example would be early last summer, near Commencement when we could not support all of the events desired, and we said no to departments requesting services, which is the first time I can remember needing to do that in the past decade,” Roberts said. “Overall services have not been consistent.”

Marilyn Martin, a custodian who has been at Dartmouth since 2013, said that changes due to COVID-19 pushed many employees to leave. In July 2021, scheduling changes due to the pandemic — such as increased night shifts — meant that custodial employees were forced to “rebid” for their jobs and take less desirable shifts. The rebidding process was implemented in combination with the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union — the union that includes custodial and dining employees at Dartmouth — and redistributed shifts by giving preference based on employee seniority, leaving a higher proportion of custodians with night shifts.

According to Martin, this meant that employees on the Facilities side who had typically worked a Monday through Friday day job were pushed into later night shifts, which often included at least one weekend shift. 

“Many people were unhappy. There was a mass exit,” Martin said. “I mean, who wants to work all night? You’ve been here for 20 years. You’ve worked your way from a less desirable position to [the earliest] first shift. You’ve been loyal. You’re dedicated, you’re hardworking. You’re tired, you’re stressed.”

In addition to the reshuffling of shifts, Martin said that employees are discontent with the lack of change in pay rates. Currently, base pay for custodians is around $21 an hour, according to Martin. 

“Dartmouth used to be the only game in town,” Martin said. “We got paid on the average 8% to 10% above what anybody around was paying for this kind of work. Now I can go to McDonald's and make $18 an hour.”

According to Roberts, the scheduling changes included in the July 2021 rebid were in anticipation of higher occupancy levels on campus and evolving COVID-19 protocol that necessitated higher standards for custodial operations.

“In the fall of 2021, with all the undergraduates coming back to campus and less [COVID-19 restrictions]...  we needed to adjust the custodians’ hours for when they provide service,” Roberts said. “We needed to adjust hours to when they could clean facilities with less people in the building.”

Typically, Roberts explained, custodial management tries to avoid rebids because it prompts “anxiety” among the custodial staff. Prior to COVID-19, he said, the last rebid happened in 2013 or 2014. During COVID, however, the staff had to rebid at least twice. 

According to Cory Holmes, a custodian who has been with the College for 11 years, the shortages have impacted the responsibilities for current staff.

“It puts a little bit more of a burden on the custodians that have to pick up that workload that isn’t being covered,” Holmes said.

Two weekends ago, Martin said she took on an additional shift during a football game and ended up working a 13-hour shift. Between four custodians, they were expected to cover 60 buildings. 

“How do you physically get that much work out of one person in a day?” Martin said. “You’re going to hurt that person.”

According to Martin, these conditions have caused custodians in both divisions to leave on injury and have led to increases in worker’s compensation claims. 

In response to the labor shortages, Roberts said efforts have been made to hire additional employees. 

“We’ve tried things like bonuses and increasing the rate of pay. There’s no longer an entry rate of pay right now, people come in at the full rate,” Roberts said. “We’re going to be hiring a recruiter to help us address this and establish contacts out there in the community that would help us target employees that help us with our services.”

Though the shortages have made working conditions more difficult for some employees, Holmes said he does not fault the College.

“I do feel like the College does appreciate it and does know what’s going on,” Holmes said. “It’s just a matter of they keep saying they need to hire people and they’re not hiring people, but that’s not their fault. It’s because people aren’t applying. It’s just a cycle that we’re just all trying to battle together.”

Roberts said he recognizes the pressure the labor shortages place on employees and is grateful for the work they do performing “a really important function to help maintain the health of the campus community.” 

Still, Martin said she feels like the verbal support from the College doesn’t match its actions.

“We get told we’re appreciated in these rah-rah meetings that we have, but we don’t see it. The words don’t mean anything,” Martin said. “I've got a lot of time invested in Dartmouth. I don’t want to go anywhere.”