Dirty schools, understaffing and inadequate supplies: CPS custodians speak out

“My section was filled with mice, roaches,” one custodian said. “No students should have to go through that.”

WBEZ
Custodians who clean Chicago Public Schools detail conditions in the schools at a rally on Nov. 10, 2021. They are represented by SEIU Local 1. Lonnell Saffold is the union recording secretary. Sarah Karp / WBEZ
WBEZ
Custodians who clean Chicago Public Schools detail conditions in the schools at a rally on Nov. 10, 2021. They are represented by SEIU Local 1. Lonnell Saffold is the union recording secretary. Sarah Karp / WBEZ

Dirty schools, understaffing and inadequate supplies: CPS custodians speak out

“My section was filled with mice, roaches,” one custodian said. “No students should have to go through that.”

Custodian Juwanda Harris said she often finds herself at night inside an old three-story Chicago public school charged with cleaning its 66,000 square feet by herself without adequate supplies.

“We have no towels, no mops, no machines to clean at all,” she said on Wednesday. “It is not right. We are overworked. We are understaffed.”

When Harris was out for two weeks this fall with a sick infant, she said her school, in Roseland on the South Side, was left without anyone to clean at night.

“I came back and my section was filled with mice, roaches and whatever else you could find,” she said. “No students should have to go through that. I often get emotional. I try not to cry. But things are worse than they have ever been.”

Harris is one of several custodians working in Chicago public schools who spoke at a rally on Wednesday about the difficulties of keeping schools clean without enough support. They say it is especially bad as they try to keep buildings sanitized during the pandemic.

SEIU Local 1, the union that represents more than 1,000 custodians who work for private companies cleaning CPS schools, said the problem is widespread. It released results of a survey of about 300 custodians, who reported feeling overworked because there wasn’t enough staff. A majority also said they aren’t getting enough supplies to properly clean their schools.

CPS officials acknowledge there are problems with keeping schools clean. In a statement, officials said they are working with school communities to determine the best course of action. “The district will continue to address the pressing need to ensure students have a safe learning environment,” the statement reads.

Officials said they do not know of any issues with supplies, but they have acknowledged staffing problems, blaming it on a general worker shortage. In addition to the private custodians, about 900 custodians work directly for Chicago Public Schools. The district is currently trying to fill more than 300 vacant custodial positions. It is unclear how many vacant private custodian positions there are.

The school district contracts with Aramark, a Fortune 500 company based in Philadelphia, to manage custodians and supplies. The custodians work directly for Aramark or for a number of private companies.

At the rally organized by the SEIU 1, the custodians focused their complaints on Aramark, which has been managing custodial services since 2014, when it promised the district cheaper, better cleaning with state-of-the-art equipment.

Aramark has faced criticism since it took over. Still, it was given a new $369 million, three-year contract in July under which it agreed to continue managing the services, including quality control, absenteeism management and providing equipment and cleaning supplies.

At the same time, the school district implemented a new model for working with Aramark. The new model calls for the school district to do more monitoring and it centralized the management of other facility services.

Donald McPherson, who works as a custodian at King College Prep High School on the South Side, said this model has meant more confusion. McPherson used to work for a subcontractor, but now works for Aramark.

He said it has been chaotic and he doesn’t always know who to talk to about problems. He said the building is short four custodians and doesn’t have the necessary equipment to clean bathrooms or floors.

“It is stressful for me to come to work and not know what I am walking into,” he said.

Genie Kastrup, executive vice president for SEIU Local 1, called on the school district to use some of the $2 billion it received in federal COVID-19 relief funds to buy more supplies and to improve custodian benefits and salary to attract more workers.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.