Lyle Skrapek has been working as a janitor since 2009. He first became involved with the union after his workplace was organized in 2010, and has been serving as a steward for the past five years. Here are some highlights from his conversation with rabble.
The benefits of being unionized
[When I first began work in 2009] we weren't unionized, and then SEIU came in. We had a very basic collective bargaining agreement [back then]. We had only one personal day [compared to four now]. And we didn't have benefits at the time and there weren't really any wage increases.
From 2015 we started to make serious headway into getting more wages and benefits for us. So we've grown a lot in a relatively short period of time.
Cleaners now have a voice to protect their rights, safety, job security and economic status. Specifically, we will now be introducing a pension plan in 2022.
Invisibility of the job
I hate to say it but people in a way take us for granted because they don't always see us. We're working in places that are sometimes out of the way like back stairwells that need to be cleaned.
We're working in bathrooms, we're working in locker rooms and showers and it is invisible work because you see people going through a facility but I don't think they often wonder how anybody maintains it.
So it's invisible work in line with say, maintenance as well. Maintenance [such as] doing repairs to ceilings, electrical work and what have you. It's the physical jobs that people aren't exactly aware of in their everyday work life.
Misconceptions about janitors
[People think] it's an easy job. And it isn't. It's very physically demanding. There's a lot of standing, a lot of walking, a lot of different movements of the upper body to do the job.
And even though it's unionized, it's not always paid on par with other jobs. We're still trying to get wage increases and [better compensation] and if you look at the work, it still doesn't really reflect the way the wages we have.
Also, cleaners are the people that are kind of the distant early warning systems for safety and health regulations because they notice if a flood is starting or if there's something like broken glass.
[Our job is also important in terms of health and safety]. Take your average office building. If we were to say go on strike or a walkout or just all of a sudden all quit -- depending on the size of the building and how many people were there, all the waste and recycling would pile up, nothing would get cleaned. And it would be a health hazard. And in anywhere from one week to a month, the building would have to be closed.
Fair wages for janitors
[Custodial should pay a starting wage of] $20 an hour, then go from there. It should have full benefits, including a pension fund and three weeks vacation, and at least 10 days of sick days or personal days [we currently have four in our contract]. And I think that would attract people that are good at cleaning and want to stick with cleaning in the long-term.
Physical challenges of the job
There's lots of repetitions in regard to doing sweeping, mopping and vacuuming. That's more what's called heavy duty cleaners. They clean mostly the floors. Out of those cleaners, you'll have people that are trained on buffers, pressure washers -- things like that. So there's a lot of heavy equipment moving as well. So you're facing a lot of muscular skeletal injuries.
With the light duty cleaners, they do mostly dusting, some vacuuming, cleaning of glass and porcelain, cleaning the bathroom fixtures, cleaning stainless steel fixtures. Again, there's still a lot of stress and strain musculoskeletal wise -- it can be the back and it can also be carpal tunnel syndrome as well.
There's also stress in the sense that you're doing the work and it's not terribly exciting or intellectually challenging. And it makes you tired in that sense to it can add to that fatigue. So those are the aspects that I see as the most immediate ones [in terms of challenges].
The cumulative physical toll
I come home and it's like, gee, I just played a hockey game. It's that same fatigue of, you know, "Go go go." It's spread out over time. 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!
Getting injured at work
It was in my first year. I was emptying my mop bucket and it slipped out of my hands. And as I tried to catch it, I fell down and injured my back.
I was on light duties for a few weeks. I took physiotherapy and later on I took acupuncture, and I still take osteopathy. It still bothers me every once in a while.
Once you injure the back, it's never quite the same. But I feel pretty fortunate because I've seen people in the cleaning industry and other physical jobs and they injure their back and they can't do physical labour anymore. So I feel very lucky in that sense.
Access to benefits in aftermath of injury
I lucked out. This was just before the union was coming in, but the company actually took pretty good care of me. 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.
Now with it being short staffed, it's like a race against the clock -- and trying to keep the quality up as best as one can. It's quite a challenge, because you want to do your best work. But sometimes, personally I feel that [the quality of work] is compromised a bit.
And that's not easy for us. Because we want to present ourselves as good employees. We care about the clientele.
Redesigning the workflow
[Besides improved wages and benefits], I would try to implement some very short breaks, aside from you know, your coffee break and your lunch hour. Just call them, rest break something just five minutes, every hour, every hour or so.
Just to catch one's breath, you know -- do a review: "Okay, I did this, what do I have to do going forward?" 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.
Educational background and becoming a janitor
I took a 17-month course, at the Ontario Institute for Audio Recording Technology in London, Ontario, beginning in September of 2004. Completed it in 2005. I had to go back right after graduation, to take care of my ailing mother at the time in Saskatchewan. So I stayed there for over a year. I came back to London, Ontario and worked for a bit [mostly at a call centre].
I made the decision in early 2008 to move to Ottawa. My second youngest sister was working as a classical musician here at the time and I thought it would have a bit more opportunity for audio engineering.
Moved up here and then I needed a survival job. So I took up cleaning. And then with that I got involved with the union. And I always thought being part of the union was good, because it reflects my values, with my father being of Polish heritage. Seeing what Lech Walesa did in Poland, to improve the quality of living was an inspiration to me to join the union.
Well, I'm considering a career change in the near future of audio engineering or whatever comes my way. I think I've got some pretty good information now on my resumé.
Union affiliation as a barrier to future employment
[Even though] I've accomplished a few things on the way it's still a bit risky to put down union work on your resumé, depending on the job that you're doing.
I mean, it's no problem if you're [applying for a] government job. But if you go into the private sector, and especially a company that doesn't have a union, then a person has to make that decision of, "Well, do I really want to put all my union work down?" Because that can be killer for getting the occupation to tell you the truth.
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 Rankandfile.ca. To contact Zaid with story leads, email zaid[at]rabble.ca.
Image: Lyle Skrapek
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