Activist community

George Mason campus community protests harsh working conditions for janitors

By Demetrius Dillard,
Special at AFRO

After months of unreasonably harsh working conditions for George Mason University custodial staff, the campus community decided enough was enough.

The school’s non-union janitors joined students and faculty for a rally outside the GMU president’s house on January 27, protesting charges against the GMU cleaning contractor for imposing a workload unreasonable in the midst of a severe staff shortage.

The adverse effects of the pandemic, along with George Mason’s change of contractor, had a negative impact on the Fairfax, Va., janitorial workforce at the college.

GMU janitors have faced similar working conditions in the past. They protested and won pay raises last year. This time, however, they are protesting because they feel “overworked”.

Carmen Moran, one of the GMU janitors, joined the protest and addressed the AFRO through translator Jessica Tamayo. Expectations are simply unrealistic for the short-staffed workforce, which is also forced to work weekends, Moran pointed out.

“We just ask them to respect us with dignity,” Moran said.

“They have a lot of intimidation when we try to talk to the union about the supervisor in management.”

This janitorial group, in particular, is cleaning four large buildings on campus and working longer hours than normal.

“We start work from 7:30 a.m. [a.m.] at 4 p.m., and sometimes we don’t have time to take our break…because of overwork,” Moran added. “But we have to work because we need the work.”

Some of the requests made during the rally were better protection – especially in dangerous weather conditions (freezing rain, snow, etc.). Protesters would also like to see more staff hired to ease the workload.

“We participated because we need change and we just wanted our voices to be heard,” Moran said. “We work with passion to take care of the students and staff of the university, but [we] don’t get the same respect.

Paola Choque Villarroel, one of some 30 protesters who mobilized, is a student at George Mason.

The exorbitant workload placed on some GMU custodial staff — often causing physical pain — has been going on for some time, Villarroel said, which played a big role in his decision to join the protest.

GMU’s Conflict Analysis and Resolution major plans to engage in nonprofit work to help immigrant communities upon graduation.

“I think the treatment of our custodial staff is very unacceptable,” Villarroel said.

LT Services, the contractor the school worked with, employed the janitors and sometimes didn’t pay them on time or often received incorrect amounts, and was even threatened with expulsion when they tried to speak, according to Villaroel.

Due to an unjustified shortage of personal protective equipment (EAR)workers were either given one or two pairs of gloves to last their entire shift, or had to bring their own gear.

The school’s janitors, many of whom are Hispanic or Spanish-speaking, are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, Villarroel noted after speaking with a few of them.

“A lot of the workers here have been working for over 10 years, and so a lot of them are actually a little shy to speak up just because they’ve been here a long time and they don’t really know what’s going to happen to them. if they talk,” said Villarroel, a native of Cochabamba, Bolivia, who now resides in northern Virginia.

“When they talk to them, they say the least they can get is some respect because of how much time they’ve already put into college.”

Despite the acquisition of a new subcontractor (Archetype), the “situation has not changed much” apart from the increase in wages. Several workers were not rehired after the university severed ties with its former contractor, resulting in longer hours for the remaining guards.

“As of this year they have a new sub-contractor where they get paid more and everything, but no matter what, they are still expected to work those long hours,” Villarroel said.

“Conditions have improved slightly, but still not to the state where we wanted them to be, so the most recent rally was to make sure that ‘hey George Mason, yes you have a new contractor, but this still not perfect and still not what we need,” Villarroel pointed out.

“Workers still deserve basic respect and to be able to work a normal schedule instead of working long hours because the new company decided not to rehire about half of the workers who were already here at Mason,” added l senior student.

Villarroel doesn’t think George Mason’s management has taken workers’ concerns seriously. Last month’s rally was the latest in a series of protests dating back to 2020.

“George Mason’s administration knows full well this is a problem as we have been protesting for about a year and a half now. But since there have been so many protests for about a year and a half, I think what they did to ‘solve the problem’ was find a new contractor,” Villarroel explained.

“Obviously finding a new contractor hasn’t solved the problem and I think they are very aware of that as we continue to protest,” Villarroel added. “I feel like right now it doesn’t seem to be one of their top priorities on their checklist.”

While Villaroel and other protesters wait for measurable change when it comes to GMU janitors, she believes the rallies have raised awareness and united the campus community.

“I just think this issue – terrible as it is – it unifies the campus community to make sure we’re all fighting for something we think is right,” the student activist said.

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