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Notre Dame cleaning staff take on new responsibilities to keep campus sanitized, maintain vacated quarantine rooms

| Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Cleaning the 150 buildings and more than 10 million gross square feet that make up Notre Dame’s academic and administrative buildings, residence halls and athletic buildings is a daunting task for the University’s staff, but this year, new coronavirus challenges have placed an even greater strain on these frontline workers.

Despite increased work hazards and sanitizing responsibilities, the 375-person cleaning staff still work for relatively low wages, the employees say.

Heather Shultz, a member of the disinfecting team created this year as part of the HERE campaign, sprays down classrooms between every class period. Previously, Shultz was an event coordinator for the University, but due to a lack of events and increased need for sanitary measures, she was offered a job on the cleaning staff instead. Taking the job meant taking a pay cut of $4.

“I was shocked how little the cleaning staff got paid,” Shultz said. “Even in a normal year, they’re doing the dirty work, cleaning the toilets and taking out the trash.”

The University is adding some benefits for its cleaning staff due to this year’s circumstances. First, cleaning staff are guaranteed payment if they are sent into quarantine or isolation. Building Services has also lengthened the new hire orientation to ensure proper safety and expanded child and elder care benefits for employees.

“All employees, regardless of task, are receiving their normal pay,” University spokesperson Dennis Brown said in an email. “But for cleaning staff who are working in residence halls and other facilities, we have consulted with experts in the field and provided them with specialized training, PPE, other equipment and supplies to make their work environment safe.”

Shultz and her fellow members of the disinfecting team suit up with gloves, goggles and face shields to sanitize classrooms and common rooms with an electrostatic gun that gives potentially infectious droplets an electric charge.

Angela Hubbard, another member of the cleaning team, has worked at the University for the past 30 years. This year, she’s responsible for cleaning door handles and refilling hand sanitizer stations on the first floors of DeBartolo Hall, Duncan Student Center and the Snite Museum of Art.

“I love doing it,” Hubbard said. “I would not be here thirty years if I didn’t.”

Aside from a few extra cleaning tasks, Hubbard said her responsibilities and hours haven’t shifted drastically, and she feels safe given the protective equipment the University provides.

Alysa Guffey | The Observer

A HERE sign in a residence hall instructs residents to disinfect the surfaces they touched before leaving the restroom.

Chris Hatfield, senior director of Building Services, said the biggest challenges due to the coronavirus have been obtaining necessary supplies and coordinating tight schedules to make sure cleaning policies are implemented. He also acknowledged the problematic nature of cleaning quarantine and isolation rooms or dorms of infected students.

The protective equipment not only guards against coronavirus, but shields the team from harsh cleaning chemicals. As of Sunday, 14 coronavirus cases have been reported among employees.

Building Services staff are already trained in universal precautions to prevent the spread of infection, Hatfield said in an email, so they simply took a few extra precautions, such as masks and physical distancing.

Each member of the team is given an assigned building and schedule from Building Services. Since class times and schedules change every day, Shultz and her co-workers juggle a complicated schedule to ensure every room gets disinfected between class periods. In addition, the electrostatic gun and all the protective equipment make cleaning a very tedious process, she said.

“I feel like I’m moving in slow motion,” Shultz said.

Besides a few new challenges, Shultz said she thinks the University has treated her fairly. Shultz was placed in a residence hall to provide extra disinfecting measures, but a few of her coworkers were assigned to clean isolation and quarantine rooms.

Shultz noted that a few of the team members assigned to clean the isolation and quarantine rooms, especially those who were older or higher risk, were more worried about safety. They didn’t feel that the University was providing proper transparency for some important details, such as how long the room had been unoccupied.

Hubbard echoed this statement, describing how she’s thankful she wasn’t assigned to clean the quarantine or isolation rooms, especially since her rheumatoid arthritis puts her at a higher risk. Hubbard said the cleaning staff who were assigned to clean these rooms were very displeased.

“All employees have been repeatedly told by the University to make us aware of any health concerns they may have, and that has been especially true for the cleaning staff,” Brown said. “We can’t assist if employees don’t bring their concerns to us.”

Nonetheless, the workers weren’t happy to be assigned to these rooms, Hubbard said

“I would’ve been scared too,” she said. “At least give them a twenty-four hour notice. Let the kids move out. Don’t rush [cleaning staff] in there.”

Hubbard also mentioned how these cleaning workers were often not asked about health conditions before receiving assignments to clean the rooms.

According to Hatfield, waiting periods are factored into cleaning schedules for quarantine, isolation and vacated residence hall rooms. Despite this, not everyone on the cleaning staff thought the University was providing proper transparency about how long the room had been unoccupied.

Brown responded regarding transparency.

“We have worked with students in an effort to ensure that all rooms in both residence halls and Q&I facilities have been unoccupied for a minimum of four hours — and usually more — before cleaning personnel begin their work,” he said. “The safety of staff, students, faculty and visitors has been and always will be our top priority. The University has encouraged everyone on campus to speak up if they have a concern, and that is true now more than ever.”

Even with added responsibilities, relatively low wages and a risky work environment, some cleaning staff take great pride in their work. According to a recent article on NDWorks, Larry Parker, a shift leader, is committed to keeping students safe and healthy.

“I hate that COVID is getting to our students. I hate it,” Parker said in the article. “I take pride in what my crew and I do because now we are saving lives. You look at a doctor or a nurse or a firefighter or police, now we are saving lives too.”

For students who want to thank the hard-working cleaning staff, Hatfield recommends a few simple measures.

“Following the rules regarding distancing, mask wearing and hand washing is being respectful of the custodians and other University staff,” Hatfield said. “Keeping your living and working areas neat and clean is also appreciated and allows more time for disinfection activity.”

Hatfield added that “taking the time to smile and express appreciation to the custodians for their work is always appreciated by the staff.”

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