Castleton University custodial staff have raised concerns in recent weeks over a persistent issue of understaffing, which employees are attributing to unsatisfactory starting wages.
Prior to a recent 4.25% raise negotiated between the Vermont State Colleges Systems’ Human Resources team and the Vermont State Colleges Staff Federation Union, starting pay for custodial staff was $13 per hour for Grade 5 workers and $13.40 per hour for Grade 6 workers. Effective this month, starting pay is now $13.55 per hour for Grade 5 workers and $13.96 per hour for Grade 6 workers.
Custodial Supervisor Chris Kwolek said though the raise is appreciated, it is still not enough for the work her and her team do.
“We have young custodians with families. It’s not a livable wage. If I’m talking to (potential applicants) on the phone to see if they will come in for an interview, when they ask me (about salary) I just cringe because I know that’s gonna be the end of the conversation. It’s embarrassing to say $13 an hour,” Kwolek said. “You can go to McDonald’s and make $14 to $17 and not work nearly as hard as you do in these dorms. As soon as (people) hear the salary, they’re not interested. So, we’re severely understaffed and overworked.”
Kwolek added that understaffing has been an issue for at least a year, if not longer, with only 15 individuals covering the needs of the campus. In their prime, Castleton’s custodial staff had 21 individuals working the grounds.
With two positions open on day shift, one on second shift, and a current staff member on extended sick leave, the team shares the responsibility of buildings left uncovered.
Alyssa Tracey, a custodian who has worked at the university for two years and is assigned to Hoff Hall, said she helped cover the unassigned Morrill Hall dorm for three weeks in the beginning of the academic year before it became too taxing.
Though she likes her job, Tracey said the workload — and the condition students sometimes leave dorms in — can be exhausting.
“(For) some of the stuff that we have to clean, we definitely do not get paid enough. Here’s one (example), I had to scoop puke out of a sink. And then I had to go and clean the toilet that somebody had puked all over. I thought I was done. No, I was not. I went to the shower. I opened up the stall and they had puked all over the shower,” Tracey said. “Another thing that the kids would do — one of my worst cleans — they would purposely clog the toilet with toilet paper. This (was) on my third floor. Then they would crap in it. And so much crap. And then they would put more toilet paper on top of it. It’s almost like it’s deliberate.”
Tina Johnson, a staff member of nearly 14 years, is currently paid a little over $16 an hour and agreed with Tracey that the pay is low for the work they are doing. Even though she loves her job, she said that inflation has made it difficult for new employees to survive on the wages they make at Castleton.
“I’ve looked in other areas and other custodial positions are starting out between $18 and $20 an hour. Granted, they’re not state colleges or anything, but with the way the cost of living is and everything. I’ve heard that what (administration is) starting (custodial staff) at is not what you’d call suitable. Because you can’t afford to live,” Johnson said. “We just had somebody that started there a couple of weeks ago. But he quit, (two) days after because he realized that the pay was a lot less than what he thought it was. He actually said we work harder than he did when he worked at a slate quarry.”
Tracey, Johnson and Kwolek all suggested that anywhere from $15 to $16 per hour would be competitive with other businesses and attract more applicants.
Custodial Staff Director Randy Crossman was credited by Tracey, Johnson and Kwolek as being a driving force in helping with the issues facing custodial staff and providing immense support for the team.
Crossman, who was appointed to the position in January, acknowledged the downsizing of custodial staff at CU over the last few years and added that wages are not only a local or state issue, but something facing many individuals at all levels.
“Some of the cons to working at Castleton could be considered that the starting wage is lower than some areas. Also, inflation has a role in that. And when we look at how people get the work, the gas prices, where we’re pulling our potential employees from — they have to be fairly localized, because they can’t afford to drive to work sometimes. So, all these things enter into it. But on the plus side, we have to educate people that are even willing to apply that we have a pretty robust benefits package,” Crossman said.
Custodial staff employees are offered substantial sick time that can be built up, vacation time and three schedules to choose from, but the issue of wage is “more of a state issue” in terms of what negotiations the union makes, according to Crossman.
Sarah Potter, the Chief Human Resources Officer for the VSCS, said such negotiations are ongoing with the Federated Union, as they have been for the past six months, in response to demands for higher wages across the VSCS campuses’ facilities staffs.
In addition to the 4.25% wage increase in starting wages this month, current employees received a 5% increase to their pay as of July 1. Another increase set for July of next year will put starting wages for Grade 5 and 6 workers to $14 and $14.42 per hour, respectively. Current staff members will also receive a retention payment in 2022 of $500 and another in 2023 of $250.
“We recognize that Human Resources needs to do a better job of promoting ‘total compensation’ to prospective applicants for these positions. Total compensation includes pay and benefits. Our custodial staff pay approximately 4% to 8% of the cost of medical insurance premiums. Vermont State Colleges System pays the remaining 92% to 96% of the cost of health insurance premiums. This is a significant benefit and consideration for prospective applicants. We need to market this benefit more effectively,” Potter wrote in an email.
Kwolek said that for all the hard work custodial staff has put into the university since understaffing has become an issue, she believes a “workload adjustment pay” of an additional $2.50 to $3 per hour when working in an unassigned building could provide some incentive.
Crossman said that he will continue to look out for, and hopefully grow, his team. But for now, he said those working at the university do an exceptional job.
“All we can do is what we’re allowed to give people for wages right now,” Crossman said. “The benefits sometimes outweigh the wages, but in general, younger people that need that actual money in their pockets to pay their bills is a hard thing. They can’t look past it to the benefits because they need to live day to day.”