'We'll never be able to keep up': School custodians fear burnout, fatigue due to understaffing

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Mike Saliba is a custodian for the York Catholic District School Board who is on leave as he serves as CUPE Local 1571's president. Image: Submitted

School custodians in Ontario say they were already short staffed prior to the pandemic, and now, with additional COVID-19 related cleaning measures, they fear burnout and fatigue will compound the problem. 

"The microscope that we're going to be under should an outbreak happen is going to be tremendous, but we don't feel like we have enough of the resources," said Richard Brown, a custodian with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). 

Brown said custodians are being asked to wipe down all touch points twice a day. Once a classroom has been emptied, to wipe down all touch points would take about two to four minutes, he estimates. Depending on the number of classrooms in any given building, repeating that task throughout the day in each room could add hours to a custodian's workload. 

Some elementary schools, which typically operate with only one chief custodian during the school day, have over 30 classrooms with 30 desks in each room, Brown said. To wipe down 30 rooms twice would amount to an additional two to four hours of work, not accounting for portables and common touch points in hallways like railings. 

Brown estimates that to comfortably meet COVID-19 cleaning requirements within the timeframe of eight hour shifts, the OCDSB would need to hire between 100-120 new workers. 

"Over the last 20 years, our department has been cut to the bone," said Brown. "Something has to give." 

Brown is currently on leave to be his colleagues' union representative with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation. Before going on leave, Brown was the chief custodian at an Ottawa high school.

In April 2019, Doug Ford's government funding cut to school boards resulted in the loss of custodial positions and in reduced hours for existing custodial staff. In September 2019, CTV reported that schools were expected to be noticeably dirtier as a result. 

In that report, Nora Shaugnessy, a custodian, was quoted as saying "we used to clean all touchpoints daily, lightswitches, door handles, handrails, countertops. No more." 

"We already knew that the staffing levels for custodians throughout the province [were] extremely dangerously low," said Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU). 

Walton said that pre-pandemic, low staffing already meant schools were being cleaned less and less thoroughly, though not for a lack of effort on behalf of custodians. Schools would do every other day cleaning, she said, meaning that half of the classrooms would be cleaned on Monday, and the other half would be cleaned on Tuesday. 

"We also routinely throughout the province have schools who run with just one custodian at night who's responsible for cleaning the entire building and that's due to low staffing as well. A lot of times these men and women are doing the utmost best that they can do, but they're cleaning 20,000 square feet of building which is an astronomical task," she added. 

The OSBCU represents 55,000 education workers across school boards in Ontario including custodial and maintenance workers. Its position on custodial staffing for COVID-19 was that each school in Ontario should get one additional custodian. 

At the end of July, the government of Ontario announced it would provide funding to hire 900 new custodians across the province's 4800 public schools to ensure additional cleaning measures are being carried out. 

In Brown's district of Ottawa-Carleton, that will result in 40 new workers brought on to help clean the region's 147 school buildings, he said. The OCDSB currently has a job posting online for casual custodians, offering a rate of pay of $14 an hour. Hiring casual workers instead of new full time positions means these workers won't have the same benefits, sick days, or access to overtime that their full-time counterparts have, but will still be laden with an enormous amount of work.

On August 26, the federal government announced it would be providing provinces and territories with additional funding to assist with school reopenings. Ontario is receiving $381 million, and said it has set aside $100 million of that "to complement the health and safety components of school reopening plans...including the hiring of custodians, HVAC, improvements, internet connectivity for students, and other local needs." 

The province did not respond to questions about how many more custodians might be hired with this new funding. 

Mike Saliba is a custodian for the York Catholic District School Board who is similarly on leave as he serves as CUPE Local 1571's president. 

Saliba said his board will be hiring 23-24 new custodians to assist in the cleaning of over 100 schools in the district. As of September 1, YCDSB has an active job posting for supply custodians offering a rate of pay of $18.88 per hour. 

Saliba said that number will be insufficient to support the added work required to ensure schools are protected against COVID-19. He said each school should be getting one additional custodian so that all schools can operate with two custodians during the day shifts. 

YCDSB is offering unlimited overtime, he said, but added that before the pandemic, custodians were already working right up until the last minute of their shifts, and sometimes staying late to accomplish their daily tasks. He's concerned that if workers have to regularly work overtime, they will be at an increased risk of falling sick and struggle with stress and exhaustion. 

"I'm really concerned about burnout. I think everyone has an expectation of what they want...With all these enhanced expectations come enhanced complaints. I'm concerned that people are really going to be feeling that kind of pressure on the mental health side of things," Saliba said. 

Neither the OCDSB nor the YCDSB responded to questions about whether the boards believe they require more custodians than what they can currently afford to hire. 

Without enough staff, Saliba said he has been in talks with the board about prioritizing tasks. 

Tasks like sweeping floors will fall to the bottom of the list, he said. And, custodians are already working to minimize work elsewhere so they can devote more time to sanitization. For instance, in York, they removed the carpets from classrooms, he said, which cuts down on vacuuming. 

Walton said that prioritizing tasks to make up for understaffing is not a long term solution. She said she worries about the cost and effect of some tasks slipping off the radar. 

"You have to look at what the day in a life in a custodian [is like]," said Walton, in order to understand the workload they take on. 

In addition to regular cleaning of the interior of schools, including bathrooms, classrooms and cafeterias, custodians in schools are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of the schools, for maintaining the outside grounds, for preventative maintenance, and for responding to urgent requests as needed, including spills and biological hazards. Custodians are also tasked with accepting deliveries throughout the day, for working with contractors when needed, for clearing snow and salting sidewalks in the winter, and for maintaining fire alarm systems.  

Those that work day shifts also often interact with students. When Brown was last working in a school, he also coached the baseball team. 

Brown and Saliba question how chief custodians -- those who work during the day -- will be able to do things like carry in 50 boxes of copy paper that were dropped off at the door, or respond to a request to clean up spilled juice, in the midst of carrying out enhanced cleaning requirements. 

"How can you expect all this extra work to happen with the workforce that's in place, and if there's an outbreak of sorts...people are going to get fatigued. The anxiety of going back to school for some people is through the roof, and rightfully so," Brown said.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Submitted

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