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Campus janitors maintain facilities behind scenes

Published: Friday, February 22, 2013

Updated: Friday, February 22, 2013 09:02


Before most students have even emerged from their beds, a crew of janitors has already vacuumed, scrubbed and cleaned their living spaces, bathrooms and academic buildings. Although they may seem invisible, the Tufts custodial staff plays a crucial role in keeping the university up to clean and comfortable standards on a daily basis.

However, despite their importance, most janitors remain anonymous to the larger student body. Here, several veteran Tufts janitors share their experiences.

One member of the janitorial staff, Clive — who declined to give his last name due to privacy concerns — came to the United States from Jamaica in 1996 to stay with his brother, who had immigrated here previously. He began working at Tufts in 1998.

He spends his mornings cleaning an entire dormitory with one other janitor, then works a shift from 5 to 10 p.m. cleaning at a children’s hospital. Though at times it’s difficult for him to juggle two jobs with a wife and a son at home, it’s necessary, Clive said.

“It’s a low-paying job. That means [I] have to do two jobs to survive,” he said.

However, he says his job offers a fair amount of security. 

“I am comfortable doing cleaning because this is not the kind of job that a lot of people really want, so you can always find [jobs] anywhere,” Clive said.

Clive, who previously had a contract with ABM Janitorial Services before Tufts switched to its current provider, UGL Unnico,  noted several differences between working with the different contractors.

“[There’s] more work,” he said. “Every company has a different strategy when it comes to cleaning [but] everywhere you go in the cleaning industry, it’s [basically] the same thing.”

Another janitor, Melvi Alfaro, works with Clive in the same dorm. Her shift goes from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday. She came to the United States from El Salvador, because she found it difficult to find work in her country, and began working at Tufts 5 years ago. Alfaro likes her job, as it helps support her and her four children, the oldest of whom is 18 years old and the youngest of whom is five. 

Although the language barrier keeps her from communicating much with students, Alfaro reports an overall friendly relationship with them. Her lack of English fluency presents few problems otherwise, however. 

“There are many Spanish-speakers in the area, [so] I get along fine,” she said through an interpreter.

Vilma Martinez has worked as a janitor at Tufts for 13 years and came to the United States from El Salvador 20 years ago. Though moving from El Salvador meant leaving her family in a country she describes as very dangerous, and she hasn’t been back since, Martinez said her mother comes to visit once a year.

“[I am] happy with this work. People are very nice,” Martinez said.

Despite Martinez and Alfaro’s neutral-to-positive experiences working with Tufts students, Clive reported receiving cold treatment.

“Sometimes to be friendly with these students, it’s very hard,” he said. “You try to be friendly and say good morning two [or] three times and they don’t answer. You don’t say it again. Back where I’m from, it’s totally different.”

Clive said that he prefers not to confront students who are making a mess, but rather simply to clean up after them.

“I say, ‘You can’t do this,’ but [with] dropped paper and stuff like that, I just pick it up, it’s not worth it,” he said. “To say something to them, it becomes something way too big.”

The student groupTufts Labor Coalition (TLC) — previously known as the Jumbo Janitor Alliance (JJA) — works to bridge this disconnect between students and Tufts workers. 

“We invite all the janitors and all the dining hall staff, and also all the students, to come to a lunch or a dinner, so there’s more interaction between students and janitors,” sophomore Coalition member Santiago Ossa said.

TLC is also planning a potential student-employee soccer tournament later in the spring.

“Students can play alongside the workers at Tufts,” Ossa said. “Maybe the workers can bring their kids.”

TLC has high hopes that student-staff events of this kind will help promote a feeling of community and belonging amongst the staff and bring them and their families closer to the Tufts community.

TLC also collaborates with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Tufts’ janitorial staff to ensure that the contracting process with companies like UGL Unicco adequately addresses the needs of the workers.

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