It was just about lunchtime — a few residence hall custodians gathered in the Sullivan Hall break room, chatting about the day’s work.
Far removed from any student, the room serves as a safe haven for these custodians, allowing them to speak freely and blow off steam after a long shift.
One custodian, Brooke Danforth, sat covered in a fuzzy blanket in the seemingly sub-zero basement of Sullivan Hall. She was audibly excited to tell someone her myriad of stories from working as a University of Wisconsin housing custodian.
“There was one time over the weekend where someone had thrown up right outside this guy’s doorway and it sat there all weekend, so when I got here on Monday it was just terrible,” Danforth said. “People had been walking through it. It was really nasty.”
Danforth had the responsibility of cleaning the carpet of the three-day-old vomit. UW custodians don’t have easy jobs. But despite dealing with gruesome work, difficult individuals and raising out of pocket benefit costs, they still manage to get the job done.
Tackling day-to-day messes
As full-time custodians, Danforth and her colleague Aaron Smeaton have dealt with a wide variety of problematic residents.
The custodians agreed that students weren’t the worst individuals they have cleaned up after. Smeaton, a six-year custodial veteran, was quick to offer the worst group of people.
Dealing with students is a different experience than cleaning up after adults “reliving their glory days.” Many custodians said the difficult summers make dealing with student issues year-round significantly more tolerable.
“The bankers’ convention is the worst,” he said. “They do all those things they wished they did when they went to college —used condoms in the living rooms. You go into one of their rooms and there is a whole bar full of empty bits of gin, vodka and tequila.”
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When it comes to dealing with problematic students, however, Danforth and Smeaton said it’s usually out of their control. To address issues with residents, custodians work closely with building staff to figure out solutions to problems they may not be able to solve directly.
“We communicate with the house fellow and then they communicate with the floor,” Danforth said. “Say, ‘Hey, you might want to check up on this person and see if they’re alright.’ Sometimes people are just alone or something and need someone else to talk to.”
Custodians are often responsible for the actions of oblivious and sometimes antagonistic individuals, but many UW custodial employees rarely express animosity.
The custodians generally cherished their interactions with residents, and said it was a large reason for choosing this job at UW.
Danforth, though happy to discuss her anguish about students, said she still enjoys the company of the people around her.
“People are usually really nice if you say something, they aren’t disrespectful, they aren’t putting you down or anything like that,” Danforth said. “They’ll talk to you about classes and [you] say good morning to them.”
Residents conversing with custodians is not uncommon. As custodians clean the floors generally every day during the week, students often take the time to talk to them about their day, or discuss the outcome of the latest Badger game.
Keira Hockers, a HouseFellow in the same dorm where Danforth works, said she talks with the custodians on her floor regularly. Talking highly of the custodians in her building, Hockers said she enjoys the company when talking with the custodians.
“The only time things have been brought to our attention is maybe if our floor could improve on picking up some of their things or common spaces,” Hockers said. “They’re always so kind, so helpful, they know me by name and they really do a good job keeping our spaces clean for our residents and holding our residents accountable for keeping their spaces clean too.”
Frustrations toward compensation
Regardless of what custodians deal with individually, be it positive or negative experiences, recent changes in work compensation have caused aggravation to some of the employees.
Due to the large state budget cuts to the UW System over the past couple of years, custodians are experiencing losses first-hand.
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In an email to The Badger Herald, Deanna Deslover, UW Office of Human Resources benefits manager, said retirement plans for custodians have not changed, but the cost of monthly premiums, annual deductibles and copays have gone up.
Despite the surge in out-of-pocket benefit costs, custodians continue to receive compensation for office visits, surgeries, mental health, prescriptions and an optional dental plan.
According to Deslover, state budget changes cause the ETF to require custodians to deduct a percentage of their salaries for the Wisconsin Retirement System. She said these changes have been in effect since 2011.
Both Danforth and Smeaton expressed their frustration with the compensation changes and its effect on their motivation.
“The benefits used to be super awesome, but now it’s like every year they just go up and more changes,” Danforth said. “We are staying at the same pay rate but ultimately our pay is getting lower and lower. We have to do all this work, and it’s hard work, every day and you’re just going, going, going and it’s like, for what? You’re barely able to pay your bills and feed yourself.”
Smeaton said he attended meetings with the vice chancellor to discuss pay increases. Ultimately, the decision came down to the state government, which decided to keep UW custodians at their current pay.
Smeaton said pay ranges anywhere from $11.24 to $14 an hour based on time working, and most people are probably receiving $13 an hour.
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Smeaton shared Danforth’s dissatisfaction about work compensation, but he met the “absurdity” of his five-year bonus with humor.
“All I got was a coupon. I got a free lunch at the dining hall,” Smeaton said. “I went in, I said I’ve been here five years, now give me a sandwich.”
Smeaton compared the experience of working at UW to his time as a custodian at an office across town, valuing his time on campus.
Regardless of the struggle for better compensation, Smeaton said working at UW surrounded by friendly faces much more enjoyable.
“People smile more,” Smeaton said. “If you’re going to pick a side of State Street, I would definitely pick this one, even if you have to step around the pools of vomit on the way to work. It’s discouraging, but it’s a good environment to work in.”