To whom it may concern: I write this letter as witness to how employees are mistreated in the work environment.
So reads a message typed and dated by UW custodian Salvador Castillo, who has stored more than three boxes of records documenting what he believes to be the harassment of himself and his co-workers by department administrators in Custodial Services.
The papers include petitions, news articles relating to custodian-university relations, and copies of records from grievance and investigatory meetings. The oldest date back to 1994.
Castillo, like all UW custodians, is part of the Local 1488 WFSE chapter, the union that represents more than 3,000 employees of various professions at UW Seattle. After serving as the executive vice president for seven years, he resigned from office in 2013, but remains an active member.
According to Castillo, who has worked at the university since 1993, UW Custodial Services supervisors engage in excessive monitoring behaviors, verbal abuse, and embarrassment of employees in front of faculty and students. Supply shortages and unfair distribution of sick leave are also stressors in the work environment, he said.
“This is a free country,” said Castillo. “We are employees. We’re not a property of the university; we’re not slaves; we’re not in jail; and, we’re not in a concentration camp.”
Gene Woodard, 30-year director of Custodial Services, said he aims to create a safe and supportive environment where employees can share their goals, ideas, and suggestions.
Managers and supervisors are held accountable to a leadership standard, which mandates leading with humility and respect, said Woodard, who spoke on behalf of his supervising employees.
Union representatives and custodians also expressed concerns about staff reductions, a result of budget cuts. In the face of UW’s growing campus and swelling student population, custodians are expected to clean increasingly more square feet of space.
According to information on page 53 of the 2014 Report on WFSE-UW Relations, the gross square feet to be cleaned by a full-time custodian has increased by 26.9 percent between 2008 and 2013. Considering that an average Seattle home covers 1,899 gross square feet, UW custodians are responsible for cleaning the equivalent of 21 houses a day, the report showed.
An aid for helping the union reach a collective bargaining agreement with the UW in 2014, the report provides a systematic analysis of grievances filed by union members, and says custodial workers face disproportionately frequent and severe discipline compared to other employees.
When questioned about strategies to address the growing need for a bigger staff to cover the university’s expanding square footage, Woodard said the problem has already been solved.
“We’ve redefined what you can do in an eight-hour work day,” he said. “Our philosophy is that you can only do what you can do in eight hours, so just do your best.”
Immigrant, minority workers push back
Pushback from the custodial staff, largely composed of immigrant and minority workers, is not new to the UW campus. Since the turn of the millennium, a number of stories have documented the unfair treatment of custodians. The workers mostly come from the Philippines, Korea, Laos, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and English is a second language for 99 percent of the staff, according to Woodard.
In 2009, workers and supporters protested when all custodians were transferred from night to day shifts. Though the shift switch saved the department some money, it forced many custodians to quit their day jobs and those with families to add day-care to their monthly bills.
Paula Lukaszek—a UW plumber, shop steward, and current president of the Local 1488—said part of the reason harassment persists is because of the high number of vacancies in the department.
“Instead of hiring, administrators are trying to intimidate current workers to keep running, running, running,” she said. Lukaszek explained that custodians are now responsible for cleaning extra buildings, in addition to their assigned ones, on “open runs.”
Because of short-staffing and open runs, Lukazek said, older buildings are rarely free of litter or dirt, and campus restrooms are cleaned only once a day.
Former UW driver and warehouse worker Doug Nielson explained that open runs lower morale by removing people from the areas they take pride in. Nielson quit last May after 20 years at the university. Though no longer tied to the UW, Nielson works with union members to increase awareness of harassment, blogging about his experiences.
The need for open runs, Woodard emphasized, is the result of a 12 percent absenteeism rate—a consequence of all the sick and FMLA leaves, call-ins, and vacation requests on any given day. More than 150 FMLA leaves were granted last year alone, Woodard said, adding that sick leave is provided, no questions asked.
Woodard also said that the department is trying to make a lot of new hires, but the Finance & Facilities’ Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Submission shows that management proposed adding only four full-time custodians. The 2013 Budget Submission noted that compared to 2008, the department had 64 fewer FTEs. The UW’s count of custodial FTEs differs significantly from the WFSE headcount because the university counts unfilled positions.
“The department explained that they’re not going to replace vacant positions because then they won’t have to lay anyone off when the budget gets cut again,” said Nielson.
In response to these claims, Woodard said the hiring shortage is purely mythical. Though the process to fill those vacancies is admittedly long, he emphasized that the department constantly interviews potential candidates—almost daily.
“We’ve been filling vacancies like crazy,” he said.
Still, Lukaszek believes vacancies need to be filled at a quicker pace. She wants the department to be as fully staffed as it was between 2006 and 2008 in order to compensate for the growing campus. That is the union’s biggest demand for the next rally, which will be held on Tuesday, January 27, at 11:00 a.m. on Red Square.
A similar rally brought together UW custodians, faculty, students, and other Local 1488 union members last April. They demanded management be held accountable for retaliatory practices against employees who speak up about harassment.
When asked about the impact of that rally, Lukaszek said nothing’s changed.
Because some of the immigrant custodians come from countries with human rights abuses or dictatorships, they’re afraid of speaking up about mistreatment, Castillo said.
“Some of the people, we have voice and we talk for others,” he said. “A lot of people got fired for that, or they’ve been targeted.”
Castillo said he is no stranger to retaliation. After being quoted about some of these issues in UW student newspaper The Daily and being seen at the last rally, Castillo claims to have been targeted by his superiors.
“In the three months after that rally, I lived hell with those people,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word.
Having requested the day off to make two medical appointments, Castillo rushed to attend the April rally after seeing his doctor in the morning. There, he witnessed his manager at the front of the lines, ready to take photos of him. Despite providing proof from his doctors of the same-day appointments, Castillo said his attendance got him into trouble. Managers involved in these events did not respond to emails requesting comments.
“The custodians know that we don’t retaliate,” Woodard began. “That is well ingrained and trained. If people have grievances, it’s compartmentalized, and we try to solve the problem.”
‘This is discrimination’
Besides assigning him extra daily work, administrators moved Castillo out of the Physics building, where he had cleaned for more than 20 years. Additionally, he said he is now expected to clear every doctor’s appointment with his supervisor’s calendar.
“If you don’t give them a week’s notice that you’re going to be sick or need to take a vacation day, they put a ‘U’ down in your file,” said Lukaszek. There are only so many unscheduled days off an employee can have, and administration is keeping a tally, she emphasized.
Additionally, Castillo alleged that some supervisors quietly keep tabs on workers, especially women, early in the morning when there are no other occupants in the buildings, startling them.
In two other cases, supervisors disbanded informal break rooms for employees. In room D1-08 of the Health Sciences building, a supervisor ordered all tables be temporarily removed after catching employees leave past their allotted break time. An unused room in the Physics building, used by three women as a lunch area for five years, was put off limits by the managing supervisor.
“It’s not right,” Castillo said. “This is discrimination. Do they expect you to eat in the hallway? Or outside, where it’s raining?”
Salary disparity within the department has also been a subject of concern for workers. According to Nielson, and as evidenced by the UW Salary Stratification Report and Washington State Fiscal Information, managers and departmental administrators have seen healthy salary increases in the past five years.
From 2009 to 2014, the director received a 16.8 percent salary increase, and the overwhelming majority of managers and supervisors received similar raises, ranging from 14.8 to 20 percent. On the other hand, top-step custodians received a 1.2 percent raise, and bottom-step custodians a 3 percent raise.
“It used to be that the head of the custodial department was just some guy with a used desk,” Nielson said. “Now he’s a prince walking around with a suit and tie.”
While Woodard could not verify those percentages over the phone, he explained that salaries for custodians are negotiated with the UW. Woodard himself is part of that negotiation team.
In regards to the raise disparity between custodians and their supervisors, Woodard emphasized that the university allocates funds based on merit and good performance reviews.
Instead of quitting, Castillo said he tolerates working in a hostile environment because of his dedication to his co-workers, many of whom don’t have the courage to voice their concerns.
“And plus, I care for education, I care for the students, for everybody,” he said. “I think if I leave, nobody will fight back.”