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Unsung heroes of the pandemic: The UW custodial workers

Facing the risks to ensure the safety of students

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custodial workers

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an unsung hero during the time of COVID-19. I believe the unsung heroes during this pandemic are those who play critical roles in the fight against COVID-19, making the community safer for others while jeopardizing their own health by increasing their chances of catching the virus. 

But have you ever considered the UW’s custodial staff as such heroes? 

When students prepared to return to campus for blended schedules of in-person but mostly online classes for winter quarter, the custodial staff made many behind-the-scenes efforts to ensure everyone’s safety and health. 

All public areas on campus are cleaned daily. The UW Housing & Food Services (HFS) works closely with the UW environmental health and safety (EHS) department and other cleaning organizations to make sure they are effectively keeping everything clean to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to an email from assistant director of custodial services Kate Flowers. 

EHS also has procedures that HFS follows and implements, according to David Rey, communications and marketing manager of HFS. 

Custodians follow an organized schedule and have a list of tasks that they must commit to memory in order to keep the dorms and public spaces as clean as possible. 

“Generally, when a custodian goes to clean a room, they start from the top, getting any dust out of lighting fixtures, and then work their way down, cleaning surfaces to the floor, and then mopping or vacuuming,” Flowers said in an email. “The final step when touching every surface in the room is disinfecting. They spray directly onto surfaces or onto a cloth and then apply to the surface to keep it wet.”  

Flowers said that due to COVID-19, the custodians were given a longer period of time for cleaning so that they didn’t feel rushed and were able to focus on the details. They also have to wear cloth face coverings and are provided with surgical masks. They wear gloves at all times, and the entire area they’re cleaning is closed off so that custodians are unable to interact with the students. 

In addition to this labor, Flowers described other problems the custodial staff faces during the pandemic.

“For custodial staff, one of the hardest things in the pandemic has been that their work life has not changed as much as some other workers,” Flowers said. “They need to come to work, care for their family members, and arrange cost-effective transportation to arrive on campus.” 

Flowers agrees that custodial work is quite heroic during such times. 

“We could not be open if custodians weren’t here,” Flowers said. “And, it isn’t just the cleaning. The custodians show care and dedication because they understand that their work is actively caring for students, keeping students healthy and in classes.” 

Students have expressed appreciation for the work that the custodial staff does. 

“They are super nice, and also pretty funny,” Abbey Moore, a UW freshman residing in Elm Hall, said in an instant message. “I typically see them around 8:30 and earlier, in the morning. They sanitize the doors and door handles thoroughly to the point I almost feel guilty touching them when going out to run.”

While limited, there are also positive student-custodian interactions on campus. 

“There’s a lady who works at Local Point; I think she’s custodial staff, as she wipes up tables and such,” Moore said. “But she always tells us what meal for dinner is going to be best, and is so cheerful and passionate. She has literally made my day during stressful times.” 

Custodians have long cleaned classrooms inside and out — performing an unenviable feat of keeping buildings looking less like thousands of students are scattering through them. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with elevated attention to cleanliness for the sake of safety and health, UW students are starting to see the janitorial teams in a new light. 

Unsung heroes, perhaps? I’ll let you decide. 

Reach writer Amina Khan at Twitter: @AminaKh27269580

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