Pepperdine’s full custodial staff, including managers and outside-contracted employees, meet at a daily line-up before the workday. Of the 22 pictured, only half are Pepperdine employees, while the 2019 staff had at least 20 without a third party. Photos by Mackenzie Dawson
When the world stopped, the spotlight shined on the people in scrubs. But the workers doing the scrubbing often got swept under the rug.
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the largest number of on-campus residents in the school’s history, Pepperdine’s custodial staff is smaller than ever. They operated throughout the fall semester with roughly half of the pre-COVID staff. At the lowest point, they only had seven in-house custodians.
“It’s an extreme shortage,” Chief Operating Officer Phil Phillips said. “We were really struggling.”
As Chief Operating Officer, Phillips oversees non-academic operations like IT, transportation and facilities.
Almost no one outside of the Department of Facilities Services was aware of the custodians’ labor shortage, but students and faculty alike felt the need for extra hands. Against all odds, one DFS worker said they remained optimistic about their situation at Pepperdine.
“At a faith-based institution, our faith is only encouraged to overcome challenges,” Manuel Cervantez said.
Manager’s Declined Comment
Attempts to interview Facilities managers and current custodians left most questions unanswered. Custodial Services Manager Hector Virgen-Barajas declined to comment and referred questions to Facilities Services Director Marilyn Koziatek. Koziatek was unable to meet for an interview but wrote in an Oct. 19 email that the custodians were heroic during the pandemic.
“We have seen our custodians rise to the challenge and go above and beyond in providing services to our community,” Koziatek wrote.
At a custodial daily lineup, Koziatek said any individual conversations with custodians would be off record for the comfortability of the staff.
Two custodians backed out of interviews, one because she left the University, and the second because her supervisor did not give her permission to speak to a reporter.
Phillips said he did not know of a reason why a manager would deny a request besides protecting their employees.
“And thank you very much for thinking of me,” one custodian wrote in an Oct. 14 email. “Almost nobody remembers us.”
Supply and Demand
The University was successful in resisting layoffs due to the pandemic, but administrators halted all hiring to conserve money. The University lost a debilitating number of custodians due to resignations or retirements, Phillips said.
Once administrators lifted the hiring freeze before fall classes began, however, hiring custodians became a top priority for the administration, Phillips said. They successfully hired and onboarded a handful of custodians, but the in-house custodial team stayed right around 10 people versus the pre-COVID team of nearly 20.
Across the country, custodians have been in high demand with very low supply. In the wake of COVID, “custodians had to double their workloads to fill the gaps,” Mark Lieberman wrote in a Sept. 20 Education Week article.
September was the lowest point, with only about 50% of the normal crew, Phillips said.
Pepperdine contracted with a third-party vendor, FlagShip, several years before the pandemic to do the overnight cleaning of classrooms and administrative buildings, which remained in place during the shortage. At the worst point, it was only nightly FlagShip custodians who attended to some high-use areas like restrooms, Phillips said.
“We had a lot of complaints, and they were legitimate complaints,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he had to explain the situation to faculty members who raised concerns about the cleanliness of their spaces since protocols indicated that custodians should have disinfected most common areas at least once a day.
“We simply don’t have the manpower to cover the campus,” Phillips said.
To meet the demands of the school, Phillips said the managerial team asked other Facilities employees to help empty trash cans around campus.
An interactive map shows the expected cleaning protocols for different areas and buildings on campus, according to the DFS guidelines. Custodial cleaning varies by location, but the fall 2021 semester saw an especially atypical schedule. Graphic by Mackenzie Dawson
Belief in the Brightside
Manuel Cervantez worked as a resident custodian at Pepperdine for two years but transferred to structural services just before the pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, people were worried,” Cervantez said. “But that goes to say, the work still gets done.”
The starting pay for custodians is between $17 and 18 per hour, Phillips said. But authorizing overtime, ranging from time-and-a-half-pay to double the pay, was a common occurrence.
“We could always use more help and more workers,” Cervantez said.
When Cervantez was a custodian he said the motto for the team was “Sí, se puede!” meaning, “Yes, we can!”
Cervantez said he could reassure his family he was safe and secure at the school and ease their anxieties over COVID because of the leadership of the Pepperdine administration.
“The foundation of our University is faith,” Cervantez said. “Faith over fear.”
The Residential Repercussions
Among on-campus residents, communal living presented precarious circumstances in shared spaces.
Junior Felicity Wynn is the Spiritual Life Advisor in Darnell House and said she is at high risk for contracting a more severe case of COVID-19 because she has two autoimmune disorders. Wynn said she was prepped for communal living with cleaning supplies and was diligent about disinfecting her living space.
“I feel safe because of the measures I’m taking,” Wynn said. “I feel like if I weren’t taking them, I would probably be getting sick.”
Wynn said she was glad that so many first-years get to be on campus to have a traditional college experience. However, Wynn also said the administration made a big misstep by admitting more students than they could safely house because with every bed filled, there could be a higher chance of illness spreading campus-wide.
Xaree Reyes, a first-year student in Banowsky House, said she heard a general consensus at the beginning of the semester that custodians would clean her suite’s bathroom — showers, floor and counter — and common room at least once a week.
“I know the garbage cans always get emptied out, and I can expect that,” Reyes said. “But the rest of it is kind of up in the air.”
Reyes said she nearly called the Facilities Department to have the bathroom cleaned after a two or three-week period when custodians did not clean it.
When Reyes came home to find custodians cleaning one day, she said she excitedly messaged her suitemates to let them know.
Reyes said she just wants to have a consistent schedule in her mind, so she can plan ahead. She also wants to know what custodians preferred from her, whether it be getting out of the way or having a conversation.
Students’ residential concerns over the cleanliness of suites, however, stayed out of earshot of the Housing Office.
Housing Operations Director Robin Gore said she did not know the custodians were short-staffed at all.
“We have not noticed an impact of complaints or issues in our office,” Gore said.
In fact, Gore was highly optimistic about the health and safety of Pepperdine’s community.
“All things considered, the year has been going really well,” Gore said.
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