By Jane Mee Wong
Northwest Asian Weekly
Swing-shift custodians at the University of Washington are coming together across ethnic lines and language barriers to keep their work shifts. The predominantly Asian, Latino, and East African workforce consists of 66 custodians who work from 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. On June 1, they will be reassigned to a day-shift that begins at 5 a.m.
“I have worked nights at the UW for 31 years. During the day, I need to take care of my 85-year-old mother, who is sick. But now if I work days, who will take care of her?” said Filipino worker Danilo Penor.
The decision to cut the swing-shift had been made when management consulted with the workers.
From the administration’s point of view, it is doing its best to save costs and preserve jobs. “The current budget crisis and 16 percent cut to Facilities Services’ budget has resulted in 39 fewer custodian positions and, unfortunately, 17 layoffs,” said Gene Woodard, director of Custodial Services at the University of Washington. “This necessitates the immediate need for custodial services to consolidate its evening shift workforce into one, primary shift in order to streamline the operation, adjust custodial coverage so that services are not severely diminished, and ultimately, to avoid laying off additional staff.”
Not all workers believe the administration’s rationale. A 40-year-old East African worker (who spoke on the condition on anonymity) said, “[Woodard] decides all changes by himself without consulting workers or the union.”
South Korean worker Yong Nam, who has worked as a custodian for 26 years, said, “For me, speaking English is a big problem. They hire me and other immigrants because they think we are easier to control. They push us really hard. We don’t know the policies so we suffer — especially Koreans, because of the English issue.”
Some custodians question whether cutting the shift will save costs.
“Management already took our shift differential. It comes up to over $100,000 a year for all of us. They did that without telling us. Now, they want to cut our shifts?” asked Mulu Siam, who has worked as a custodian for nine years. An average custodian’s yearly salary is $24, 000.
Many custodians believe that switching to day shifts will affect the quality of cleanliness in the buildings.
The 46 faculty members of the Physics/Astronomy Building on campus signed a petition to raise the issue of building cleanliness. In the letter addressed to various directors of the Custodial Services divisions, the faculty wrote, “Much of the thorough cleaning that takes place during the night shift will likely not be feasible during the day due to the presence of students and faculty in instructional spaces and offices. The three hours before classes begin are not enough time.”
“They want us to finish in three hours before students come, from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., what we used to do in eight hours,” said Lem Lem, a custodian who works in the Health Sciences building.
“Our floor space has also expanded from 32,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet. How is this possible?”
In light of the spike in violence and robberies experienced near the University of Washington campus in recent months, the petition also stated, “The evening custodial staff contributes significantly to building security and safety of the occupants in the evening.”
Woodard says he understands the hardships that come with the shift change and that the administration is doing its best to make the transition easier. “We recommended to the union that we use hardship instead of seniority as the basis for filling the few positions remaining on evening shift,” said Woodard. “We are also going to assist with parking fees and assist with exploring transportation options for staff transferred to day shift. I know that this does not help everyone, but savings people’s jobs has been our primary objective throughout this budget crisis.”
For some of the staff, that sentiment is of little comfort. “UW says they are for multiculturalism and diversity, but they don’t care about the needs of immigrant workers who are working hard to raise their families,” said a custodian who declined to be named for fear of backlash from management. ♦
The UW custodians are organizing a rally on Thursday, May 28, at the UW’s Red Square to protest the swing-shift cuts.
Stacy Nguyen contributed to this report.
Jane Mee Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.