Custodians’ legal dispute over team cleaning is still brewing

The University and the union were supposed to go to arbitration Monday.
December 06, 2011

Four months ago, the University of Minnesota implemented new practices for custodians on campus.

Custodians voiced their concerns before the new “team cleaning” policy went into effect in mid-August. The dispute still hasn’t been settled.

The custodial workers’ union, Teamsters Local 320, filed a grievance against the University in June for what it said was a violation of the workers’ contract. The two sides were set to begin arbitration Monday, but due to scheduling conflicts, it won’t come up for at least another month or two.

For decades, each University custodian cleaned buildings on campus with their own “area” or “zone” — the custodian was responsible for all tasks in a specific area.

On Aug. 15, the University changed to a “team cleaning” method, in which an average of four to five custodians clean an area together, each doing an individual task like vacuuming or cleaning bathrooms.

Mike Berthelsen, associate vice president for Facilities Management, said the change helps increase efficiency and consistency in cleaning campus with a smaller staff. Staff has dropped from 540 to its current 425 in the past few years, he said.

The change means custodians perform the same task for about a week at a time.

“It’s a broken system,” said Alan Fors, a University custodian of about 34 years. “Things need to change.”

Fors said he was going to speak to Kathleen O’Brien, vice president of University Services, on Thursday about the matter.

The custodians’ contract states that each worker can bid on a specific area to clean, based upon seniority. Curtis Swenson, a business agent for the union, said the new team cleaning practice, which has multiple custodians cleaning the same area, violates that clause of the contract.

Berthelsen argued that the change doesn’t violate the contract.

Other custodial employees commented on the change, but requested confidentiality because of the ongoing legal process between the University and the workers’ union.

One custodian who has worked for the University for 11 years, called the system “terrible.”

“It’s chaos on the custodians,” the worker said. “There’s always somebody that don’t want to do their part.”

The custodian also said if a worker was missing from a team, other team members would need to cover those duties.

“It’s a work in progress,” a senior building and grounds worker said. “Everything’s still being worked out right now. It’s a little soon to tell if it’s working or not.”

Berthelsen said fewer workers meant the University had to change the way it cleaned to cover more ground.

Rather than cutting services to cope with budget cuts, he said Facilities Management tried to increase efficiency.

In 2009, Berthelsen said the department had to lower its service standard — rather than emptying office garbage daily, it switched to just once a week.

He also said the need for greater consistency was a reason for the change.

“The quality of our custodial service was very inconsistent,” Berthelsen said. “The new system will put more eyes on the same area.”

Berthelsen said facilities management used to have the budget to have a relief staff — workers that were able to fill in areas where an original worker was sick or on leave — but that the new budget doesn’t allow for that backup staff.

“Change is hard on everybody,” Berthelson said. “These are broad and deep changes and … these are a good example of us picking up the pace.”

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