A campus’ backbone: custodial staff maintain success of fall semester

Every weekday, Shanna Treasure walks from her Town of Poughkeepsie home to her job as a Vassar custodial worker. While students, faculty and administrators sheltered in place after spring break and through the remaining spring semester, she had to walk into work, albeit with two to three-day work weeks and personal protection equipment as the College managed on-campus density. Vassar still committed to paying her and other employees their weekly salaries despite the reduced work hours. 

Shorter work weeks continued into the summer as she and the College’s other maintenance, custodial, grounds and dining employees were furloughed for an average of three days per week between May 18 and July 31. While campus workers received full pay in the spring, this time they had to apply for state unemployment for the days they did not work. This was to offset the predicted economic fallout of the pandemic. With the start of the fall semester, Treasure and her coworkers are needed now more than ever.

Many criticize colleges like Vassar for reopening in the midst of a global health crisis far from over. But some students and professors at these schools had a choice: work from home or brave going to campus amid a pandemic. For many custodians, food staff and grounds workers—the backbone of a functioning college campus—the nature of their work hinges on their presence.

As American colleges and universities rolled out their reopening plans, administrators emphasized enhanced cleaning protocols. Custodial staff, who already perform a vital service, were more crucial than ever.

Non-academic campus workers across the country have protested these reopenings without union protection while relying on students and faculty to champion their concerns about workers’ safety. A group of faculty, graduate students and other university workers filed a class-action lawsuit against the University of North Carolina system, claiming that they were not provided a safe work environment due to the systems’ reopening plans.

Many campus workers unions are still pushing for hazard pay or paid leave in collective bargaining rounds with their schools.

The local Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chapter Vice President Cathy Bradford shared that Vassar has not offered workers hazard pay. Associate Vice President for Human Resources Ruth Spencer said Vassar worked to accommodate employees in other ways in the early weeks of the pandemic. “We instead significantly reduced the work schedules of employees whose jobs required them to continue working on campus—a step intended to both keep employees ‘whole’ and reduce population density and the risk of transmitting illness,” she said

The College also offered temporary leave programs for workers who themselves or someone in their household are at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the coronavirus. If an SEIU employee contracts the novel coronavirus, they will receive paid leave for the time they must stay home.

Though furloughs in the summer were meant to cushion some of the pandemic’s economic blow, President Elizabeth Bradley announced that Vassar will eye additional furloughs and possible pay cuts if the semester presents further financial crunches. The College projected a $3-5 million deficit for 2020 and anticipates a $5-50 million deficit for 2021.

Then there leaves the uncertainty of a shutdown, where members of the College would have to isolate and evacuate. “While we cannot predict the course the pandemic will take, it has been the College’s goal throughout this crisis to protect its employees as much as possible,” said Spencer.

Vassar’s zero active on-campus cases as of last week prompted a sigh of relief from those that must traipse campus for work, but the possibility of an outbreak has not completely left workers’ minds.

Treasure shared what the past months and even years at Vassar have meant for her. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Miscellany News: How long have you been working at Vassar?

Treasure: I’ve been a cleaner for 13 years.

The Misc: Did you work during the summer?

Treasure: Yes. We had a week or two of break, but then they called us back because the kids were slowly arriving. Some kids never left, so they needed us. Of course, bathrooms are going to be used and common areas and kitchens.

The Misc: Did you experience any kind of fear when students were coming back?

Treasure: I guess I was a little anxious, not just because of [the campus], but just in my everyday—going to the grocery store and picking up prescriptions. [COVID-19] made me more aware of who was around me. Ok, [someone] coughed. Is it allergies? Are they sick? I cough and sneeze because I have allergies. To get me through the day, I just say that person has allergies. If not, it’ll drive you crazy. Because they say people can be asymptomatic. I just think that, since everyone is [on campus] and everyone has been tested, then everyone is safe. I have nothing to worry about. 

The Misc: Do you have any fear now going into work every day?

Treasure: My coworkers and I work really hard to keep the bathrooms clean [in Jewett]. I do the showers with the [cleaning] machine every week. Every day we come through and disinfect. Around 11, there’s another team that comes through and disinfects everything—all the bathrooms, water fountains and door handles. That helps a lot. I’m sure it makes other people feel good knowing that something has been disinfected. You feel a little bit safer.

The Misc: It doesn’t sound like you’re as concerned as, say, campus workers at any of these other colleges that have shut down across the country.

Treasure: We’re definitely wondering if that’s gonna happen here. We see the reports and we read President Bradley’s emails. First it was four cases, then 11. It upticked, but personally, I have to think that the College is protecting us—that they would be honest and tell us, “Guys, listen, this is what’s going on.” So we are putting a lot of our faith and trust into [the College] to be honest with us because we’re coming in here to do a job. But now our job has changed because of COVID-19.

We’re hoping we don’t close, but if we have to, we understand. We see what’s going on in the world. You can’t take risks with students’ lives or our lives. Nobody wants that. We just want to get through this [as] safely as possible.

The Misc: Do you feel any sense of job insecurity given these circumstances?

Treasure: I would like to say no. I’d like to think that, because we’ve been here and we know the buildings and have gotten to know students, professors and other people who work at the College. To think that they were to lay people off or just bring in other people, that process is going to have to start all over again. It’s kind of like living somewhere for 30 years and you know your neighbors well, but your neighbors have sold the house and new people move in. I would hope that [because of] how long we’ve been here and [how we’ve] worked our hardest to make this place safe, that they wouldn’t just decide to let us go. It’s always in the back of your mind because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m hoping this can all die down and we can get back to some sense of normalcy—that this will be a conversation we can laugh about at another time.

The Misc: Vassar has three cases [at the time of this interview]. Does that give you any sense of relief?

Treasure: Honestly, no. When I hear that, I start thinking, “Who has this person been in contact with? Where have they been?” You hear that someone is in self-quarantine, and it’s like a waiting game. Do they have it? Do they not have it? Are they asymptomatic? For people to compare this with the flu, for people to now say, “well, you should be worried about the flu.” No, I’m not worried about the flu. I’ve had the flu before. This is different. There’s no comparison. With this, there [can be] people walking around who have it with no symptoms. That’s what makes me on edge. You just don’t know.

You see the trend of a school that just opens after Vassar, and now they’re closed. It’s kind of like everyone’s looking at us like, “Well, how come they haven’t closed yet? What are they doing differently that we’re not doing?” I think a lot of it is us workers and students are being more responsible. I still occasionally see kids off campus, but hopefully we can keep it down so we won’t have to close, send anyone home, we won’t be out of work and more importantly, none of us get it. That would be the last thing I want.

The Misc: Is there someone whom you have to take care of in the midst of the pandemic?

Treasure: I haven’t seen my grandmother in months. She’s a particular age. I don’t know who I’ve come in contact with, and I don’t want to put her at risk. I have little cousins who I haven’t seen in almost six months because they’re little. I don’t want to get them sick. Even though I do live alone, I do have people who I haven’t seen in six-plus months because I don’t want to put them at risk. I would feel horrible.

The Misc: Do you feel appreciated for the work you do on campus?

Treasure: I do my job to the utmost, and I do my job for the students and me. I will say that this year, there definitely has been much more “Thank you so much” probably more than all my other years. That makes me feel good. Some kids will say, well that’s just her job, I don’t have to thank her. But now, I go into a bathroom and someone thanks me, or someone will walk by and back up and say thank you. They don’t have to, it’s that they took that little bit of time just to say thank you. And not even just the students either, the people in the office too. That makes you feel good. You’re doing your job, but every once in a while it’s good to hear that you’re appreciated and that someone has noticed that you’ve made a difference.

The Misc: Do you have anything else you’d like to share?

I hope the future at Vassar is bright and safe and we all continue forward together. Again, if they close because of the COVID, we all would understand because we all want safety first.

My 13 years at Vassar have been a blessing. I’ve met some very interesting people from all sorts of walks of life [and from] countries I never even knew existed. And I have mementos that kids have brought me back, and I love when it’s a reunion and we get to work and see past students now come back as adults, married adults, sometimes with their kids, and you get to meet the husband or the wife and the kids. I enjoy seeing that. I enjoy seeing someone come in as a freshman, watching them throughout the years and then on graduation day. Those are probably some of my favorite times here at Vassar.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you to Ms. Treasure and all the staff members who keep the campus clean and safe. Your hard work and dedication make a huge difference for the well-being of the entire community and you are greatly appreciated.

  2. Thank you Tiana Headley for this excellent piece and thank you to Ms. Headley and other custodial, cafeteria and essential workers who are TRULY the folks that make this campus run! WE SEE YOU AND APPRECIATE YOU!

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