Salt Lake Community College’s custodial staff, which is responsible for cleaning and maintaining over 50 buildings every week, is experiencing a staff shortage this semester.
Of the 156 total custodial positions at the college, 65 (42%) are currently unfilled, and there’s been a gradual decline in the number of employees since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the U.S. in March of 2020.
Having recently attended the quarterly meeting with the Utah Collegiate Custodial Association, David Earl, maintenance and custodial manager at SLCC, said the shortage is widespread.
“There’s not one university or college that isn’t having this problem,” Earl said.
At the beginning of October, hourly pay for entry-level custodial positions increased from $12 to $14. Bob Askerlund, associate vice president of facilities, hopes the pay increase will improve the situation, but he acknowledged the ongoing difficulty.
“It’s hard to keep people, let alone recruit them,” Askerlund said, adding the college recruits any way it can, including the placement of a QR code on staff vans that sends users to the main HR landing page for applicants.
Pedro Leonardini, a custodial supervisor at SLCC, said they haven’t had many people apply for these positions since the pay increase, noting this may have to do with the fact that there are similar jobs that pay the same hourly rate, if not higher.
“Many companies such as hotels offer 16 to 20 dollars per hour for cleaning and customer service employees, even offering bonuses if they stay more than 90 days,” Leonardini said.
Askerlund said that they’ve always had a large portion of entry-level employees “making decisions as to other places of employment that pay equal or better wages.” Many of the entry-level staff work two jobs, and Askerlund suspects that number has increased recently.
Leonardini, who has been an employee at the college since 1994, said the pandemic has completely changed the thinking of the employees.
“Many of them didn’t want to expose themselves to COVID-19 and left work [which] caused more tasks to be assigned to the employees who still remained,” Leonardini said. “Some of them felt that they were overloaded with their assignments and also decided to quit work.”
Any increases in hourly pay for part-time employees at the college is an institutional decision, and a costly one at that, according to Askerlund.
“You’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, when you [increase wages],” he said. “Our only source of revenue is tuition, but student enrollment is declining right now, so that makes it especially difficult.”
Askerlund met last month with the Faculty and Staff Associations, as well as members of the COVID-19 Task Force, to find ways to help the custodial staff — of which, included faculty cleaning their labs themselves, and better communication if instructors change rooms to prevent custodial staff from cleaning unused rooms.
Askerlund said this meeting brought a much better awareness to this issue.
“I think that was pretty effective — just to have that conversation and get that out there [which] has helped spread the word,” Askerlund said. “We’re already seeing dividends paid from that, so we just have to keep communicating.”
According to the CDC, recent quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) studies suggest that the relative risk of COVID-19 transmission through contact with contaminated surfaces — otherwise known as fomite transmission — is “considered [to be] low compared with direct contact, droplet transmission, or airborne transmission.” The exact odds are generally less than 1 in 10,000, which means that “each contact with a contaminated surface has less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of causing an infection.”
Askerlund said the staff used to spend lots of time cleaning surfaces, but with the knowledge that touch is not the primary means of transmission for the virus, they have been able to be more efficient in their cleaning.
“Once that came out, David [Earl] got some fogging machines that hit the classes, and I think we’re more effective with those rather than trying to wipe every desk, seat, and flat surface,” Askerlund said.
Other safety measures the facilities and custodial department has taken include increasing the density of air filters and introducing more fresh air through the HPAC systems, which can reduce airborne transmission of infectious agents such as COVID-19.