Custodians say team cleaning is still an issue

The union lost its case against the University over the year-old system.

Sr. Building and Grounds Worker Pat Bemrick works the night shift Sunday at the Barbara Barker Center for Dance.

Image by Simon Guerra

Sr. Building and Grounds Worker Pat Bemrick works the night shift Sunday at the Barbara Barker Center for Dance.

by Emma Nelson

Pat Bemrick  has seen a lot of changes during his time at the University of Minnesota. He graduated in 1996 with a degree in film studies, and has worked as a campus custodian for nearly 20 years. Now, he said, the culture he committed much of his life to has been damaged.

Arbitration between Teamsters Local 320 and the University, decided June 9, denied the union’s claim that a new cleaning practice violates their contract. Now, some custodians say morale has hit a low point — and the arbitration decision protects a cleaning method that diminishes the quality of service to the University.

In August 2011, the University’s Facilities Management implemented “team cleaning,” which assigns a group of custodians to complete individual tasks in a large area —a practice meant to increase efficiency and cut costs.

The new practice replaced “area cleaning,” in which custodians bid into supervisors’ areas based on seniority, and then are responsible for completing all of the tasks within that area.

Teamsters 320 said team cleaning violates a portion of the custodians’ contract that outlines the bidding process — as well as past practices — by assigning more than one custodian to a single area.

In response to the November 2010 announcement of the change, they filed a grievance in June 2011 which resulted in arbitration between the union and the University.

After three days of testimony and 60 days of consideration, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the University, saying that neither the contract nor past practices were violated.

Conflicting testimonies

During the arbitration hearings, the two sides disagreed on whether past practice dictated that only one custodian could be assigned to clean one area.

Mike Berthelsen, associate vice president for Facilities Management, said before team cleaning was implemented, custodians would sometimes cover different roles within the same space. Custodians assigned to be “policers,” for example, were responsible for touch-up work on areas that had already been cleaned.

“Our point was that in our existing bidding process, we already had multiple people bidding for different roles in the same space,” he said.

Jim Larson, who has been a senior building and grounds worker for 21 years, said custodians did not mind the type of collaboration that was identified by management as a form of team cleaning.

But a majority would prefer area cleaning, he said, in part because “they felt that they were more productive and did a better job.”

A means for improvement

The implementation of team cleaning was partly driven by budgetary constraints, Berthelsen said. Cuts in fiscal year 2010 were dealt with by reducing services — for example, cleaning labs three times per week instead of five — a solution that was decided against when facing further cuts in 2012.

Another goal was increasing efficiency while also improving consistency, Berthelsen said. The University was behind peer institutions in the number of square feet cleaned by each custodian, and customer service surveys showed variance in quality from one area to another.

“We looked at the whole series of things we can do to try and improve our productivity,” he said.

According to Julie Harrington, who has worked as a custodian for 25 years, areas were checked each month by supervisors, and all custodians passed probation.

Chris Nault, who has worked as a University custodian for 23 years, agreed.

“If there was an area that wasn’t cleaned properly, the supervisor should’ve been addressing that issue,” he said.

‘One step ahead of the dirt’

Some custodians say team cleaning is not as efficient as promised.

Nault said many teams have found they can’t complete their assigned work using the model presented in training.

“There’s so many things you have to do in custodial, it just doesn’t fit in a neat box like they say,” he said.

As a result of the increased workload, the level of service has decreased, Harrington said.

She was once responsible for cleaning a single floor in a building. She, along with two other custodians and a lead worker, is now responsible for three entire buildings.

Time is lost traveling between buildings, she said, and each transition requires its own prep and clean-up time.

“It just feels like we’re one step ahead of the dirt,” Harrington said.

New supplies were purchased at the time of the transition in order to increase efficiency, Berthelsen said. But according to Harrington, they present another problem.

One change was the switch from upright vacuum cleaners to a backpack model. The new vacuums are not only hot, but also weigh nearly twice as much.

“It’s like having a kid on your back,” she said.

Facilities Management did not take custodian input when selecting new equipment, Bemrick said, and the “one size fits all” approach has, in many cases, not been successful.

The decrease in service is saddening, Harrington said, and a disservice to the University.

“We are there to serve the University community, and we are not doing them justice with this team cleaning,” she said.

‘Below expectations’

Between fiscal years 2010 and 2011, satisfaction with custodial services dropped, according to surveys conducted by Sightlines LLC.

More respondents said it took more than one attempt for Facilities Management to satisfy a request, and two percent more than the previous survey said upwards of four requests was necessary.

Satisfaction with services dropped overall, with 8 percent of respondents — in comparison to 1 percent in 2010 — saying their level of satisfaction “is far below expectations.”

The report concluded that the decrease in satisfaction may be the “immediate impact from the new team cleaning model,” and that updates to future surveys will show if the method is effective or not.

Larson said customers have expressed interest in returning to area cleaning. Having the same people working in an area every day allowed for relationships between custodians and customers, he said.

While management has recognized the need to make changes during the transition to team cleaning, Larson said, custodian morale is greatly diminished — beyond the technical aspects of team cleaning and the results of the arbitration.

It’s an issue that has to be dealt with directly before the relationship between staff and management can be expected to improve, he said.

“It’s the crazy uncle that you keep away from the rest of the family,” he said. “It’s a problem that should be addressed rather than thinking it’s going to go away.”