The daily grind of working as a janitor

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Natalie Guitead (left) and Lyle Skrapek (right). Images: Used with permission

Natalie Guitead, 26, has been working as a janitor for three years now, and the job is beginning to take a toll. The physical stress from repetitive motions builds up over time, especially when she is lifting 22 kilograms worth of garbage.

"I'm always just bending down, picking up garbage and then dumping into my bin," she says. 

"And I notice at the end of the week, that I feel it in my back, or my arm is sore. And if it's a really bad day where there's a lot of heavy garbage. I just feel very exhausted."

Her current workplace at a commercial building in downtown Ottawa is better than some of the other locations she has worked in. 

"For our building, we have three people who work on one floor," she says. "So one [person] will take care of garbage and dusting. One will take care of washrooms, and then one employee will vacuum and mop floors. Whereas I've worked in other locations where I've done [all tasks] for one entire floor."

Addressing disparity in working conditions

The disparity in working conditions based on managerial whims inspired Guitead to join the Service Employees International Union's Justice for Janitors Council in Ottawa. 

In Ottawa, as in other cities, SEIU's J4J Council functions as a bargaining committee that negotiates a single city-wide contract with multiple employers. By having the major cleaning companies on one bargaining table, the union can push for higher standards across the board. 

"I got to learn that the standards that I may have in mine are not the same as at other companies. And, and it usually rings true that a lot of companies do not care about their employees, which is very sad," says Guitead.

The inconsistency in employers' expectations and treatment of workers take many forms. In the last round of bargaining earlier this year, the application of bereavement leave became an issue. 

SEIU ultimately negotiated a paid day off for bereavement that would apply in the case of a relative outside of the immediate family passing away, such as an aunt or uncle. 

"I know that if I had gone to my manager, I most likely would have gotten [the day off]," Guitead says. "It may not have been paid, but I would have gotten it for sure. Whereas others, they would not even be approved for that day."

Guitead points out that the norms vary depending on the employer and even the industry. Cleaners in hotel, for instance, have more demanding jobs. 

Based on her experience, Guitead can attest to the relative peace of fairer working conditions. At her current job, she cleans multiple floors but only picks up garbage and cleans glass walls. 

"The focus on certain tasks can really help with just keeping your general sanity," Guitead says with a laugh. "[Plus] time management and keeping your body in better shape."

The daily grind

One of the misconceptions about custodial work is that it's easy, says Lyle Skrapek, who has been working as a cleaner for 10 years and is an SEIU union steward at the federal government building where he works for a private contractor.

It isn't just the physical exertion of the job, but the pace at which janitors are expected to work that makes a difference.

Standards vary across the industry, according to Jorge Villa, an organizer for SEIU Local 2. In his own experience as a former janitor, a supervisor would use an app to determine the quality of work. 

"Most companies have a person who will go through your whole floor and they will estimate how much time it will take to clean it," Guitead says. "They usually do that type of thing on a yearly basis."

That assessment helps firms determine staff allocation. According to Guitead, experts consider how fast a person is able to work, as opposed to how long certain tasks take in a reasonable amount of time.

"Sometimes these experts will come back and say, these amount of floors should be done in four hours," she says. 

"When in reality, most employees might take four and a half hours. But they also don't think to say, if [the cleaners] had a long day at work, or if the day before they had to lift like 50 pounds [22 kg] of paper."

Her own pace has to be relatively fast, as she can't predict the amount of garbage on the next floor. For instance, if there has been an office party the day before, her work suddenly piles up.

Since cleaning companies' major expense is labour, and they win bids based on minimizing costs, the problem is systemic.

Villa says understaffing is a persistent problem across the industry, placing additional physical demands on cleaners.

"I work five hours, and I believe I'm supposed to get a half-hour break," Guitead says. "And the most I can even spare myself is about 15 minutes on a good day, five minutes if it's a bad day."

When asked how he would redesign the workflow of the job, Skrapek agrees that breaks can go a long way -- just a couple of minutes every hour. 

"Just to catch one's breath, you know -- do a review: 'Okay, I did this, what do I have to do going forward?'" he says. 

"Just a small break that allows the person to have a little bit of regrouping. Gives them that physical and mental rest. And it makes a big difference to do that and just go on for the rest of the day."

The physical challenges

The physical challenges of custodial jobs are hard to overstate. Skrapek says that sometimes at the end of the day, he feels like he has played a game of hockey.

"It's that same fatigue of, you know, 'Go go go,'" he says. "It's not the short, intense, hour to an hour and a half. It's stretched over a day but instead of skating and taking shots, you're mopping, sweeping and vacuuming. And with injuries it's like taking a body check or something -- it feels like that!"

In his first year on the job, before his workplace was unionized, Skrapek injured his back. 

"I was emptying my mop bucket and it slipped out of my hands," he says. "And as I tried to catch it, I fell down and injured my back."

Skrapek was fortunate enough that his employer paid for his physiotherapy as he didn't have benefits at the time.

"This was just before the union was coming in, but the company actually took pretty good care of me," he says. "They had a pretty good physiotherapist and everything [which they paid for] and I was pretty fortunate that way but now it solidifies that type of access with the union."

Workers are entitled to about $200 worth of physiotherapy per year, which amounts to four sessions. SEIU organizer Villa says it isn't a lot, but is important to workers nonetheless -- particularly those who get injured and await workplace insurance benefits.

Winning a pension

In the last round of bargaining, SEIU janitors in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver won pensions. Starting in 2022, one per cent of cleaners' pay will go towards the plan, with the employer matching that contribution. 

Guitead notes that it's a modest start, and will need to improve greatly during future negotiations.

"If you make 30,000 a year, then that's only $300," she says. "That's $600 after it's matched by the employer. And after 10 years, it's [only] six grand."

Villa agrees it's a small amount but says that the establishment of a plan alone is a win. 

He notes that other benefits and perks too began in a minimalistic fashion, but expanded with subsequent collective agreements. For instance, workers only used to have only one personal day several years ago compared to the four they have now.

With many SEIU janitors in their 40s and 50s, the pension plan will become increasingly important to maintain and expand. 

Future prospects

Skrapek's career trajectory took an unexpected turn when after completing a 17-month course in audio engineering from Ontario Institute for Audio Recording Technology in London, he had to move to Saskatchewan to take care of his ailing mother.

Custodial work was a "survival job" back when he moved to Ottawa and looked for opportunities in his field.

Over time, as he became involved with the union and assumed the role of a steward, the job became infused with more meaning. But he eventually wants to go back to audio engineering.

Guitead, too, has other prospects. She has been seeking event-planning opportunities as they arise, which alongside a nanny job supplements her 25-hour a week custodial work.

"I've already gone to school for event management, and hospitality management. So I'm most likely looking to do something in that field. It's just because I don't see myself working [as a cleaner] for the next 25 years," she says.

"I've been doing this for three years now. And I feel it -- I feel the pain. I even take days off just so I can rest my back."

Last week: Part 1 of rabble's series: "These Canadian Janitors Live to Work."

Zaid Noorsumar is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2019, and is a journalist who has previously contributed to CBC, The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and To contact Zaid with story leads, email zaid[at]

Images: Used with permission​

Editor's note, November 23, 2019: An earlier version of this story misstated the cities where SEIU janitors have won pensions. In the last round of bargaining, SEIU janitors in Toronto and Ottawa won pensions, but not in Vancouver.

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