By Demetrius Dillard,
Special to the AFRO

After months of excessively severe working conditions for George Mason University’s custodial staff, the campus community decided enough is enough.

The school’s non-union contracted janitors joined students and faculty for a rally outside of the GMU president’s house on Jan. 27, protesting charges against GMU’s cleaning contractor for imposing an unreasonable workload amid a severe staffing shortage. 

The adverse effects of the pandemic, along with George Mason switching subcontractors, has negatively impacted the janitorial workforce at the Fairfax, Va., college.

GMU janitors have dealt with similar workplace conditions in the past. They protested and were awarded pay raises last year. This time around, however, they are protesting  because they feel they are being “overworked.”

Carmen Moran, one of the janitors at GMU, joined the demonstration and spoke to the AFRO through translator Jessica Tamayo. The expectations are simply unrealistic for the short-staffed workforce, who is also obligated to work on the weekends, Moran pointed out.

“We just demand them to respect us in dignity,” Moran said.

“They have a lot of intimidation when we try to talk to the union about the supervisor in management.”

This janitorial group, in particular, cleans four big buildings on campus and works longer-than-normal hours.

“We start work from 7:30 [a.m.] to 4 p.m., and sometimes we do not have time to take our break… because of the overwork,” Moran added. “But we need to work because we need the job.”

Some of the demands expressed during the rally were better protection – specifically during unsafe weather conditions (freezing rain, snow, etc). Protestors would also like to see more staff hired to lighten the workload. 

“We attended because we need change and just wanted our voices to be heard,” Moran said.  “We work with passion to take care of the students and staff in the university but [we] don’t receive the same respect.”

Paola Choque Villarroel, one of the 30 or so protestors who rallied, is a student at George Mason. 

The exorbitant workload that has fallen upon some of the custodial staff of GMU – often causing physical pain – has been happening for a while, Villarroel said, which played a significant role in her decision to join the protest.

The senior conflict analysis and resolution major at GMU plans to engage in nonprofit work helping immigrant communities following graduation.

“I think that the treatment of our custodial staff is very unacceptable,” Villarroel said.

LT Services, the subcontractor that the school used to work with, employed the janitors and occasionally wouldn’t pay them on time or were often paid incorrect amounts, and were even threatened with deportation when they tried to speak up, according to Villaroel. 

Due to an unjustifiable shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), workers were either given one or two pairs of gloves to last their entire shifts or would have to bring their own materials.

The school’s janitors, many of whom are Hispanic or are Spanish-speaking individuals, are afraid to speak up in fear of losing their jobs, Villarroel noticed after speaking with a few of them. 

“Many of the workers here have been working for over 10 years, and so a lot of them actually are a little shy to speak up just because they have been here for a long time and they’re not really sure what will happen to them if they do speak up,” said Villarroel, a native of Cochabamba, Bolivia, who now resides in Northern Virginia.

“When speaking to them, they say that the least they can get is some respect because of the time that they have already devoted to the university.”

Despite acquiring a new subcontractor (Archetype), the “situation hasn’t changed much” outside of higher wages. Several workers weren’t re-hired after the university broke ties with its previous subcontractor, which has led to more extensive hours for the remaining custodians.

“As of this year, they do have a new subcontractor where they are getting paid better and everything but regardless of that, they are still expected to work these long hours,” Villarroel said.

“Conditions have gotten slightly better, but still not to the condition where we want them to, so that’s why the most recent rally was to make sure that ‘hey George Mason, yeah, you do have a new contractor, but it’s still not perfect and still not what we need,’” Villarroel emphasized.

“The workers still deserve the basic respect and to be able to work a normal set of hours instead of working long hours because the new company decided not to rehire about half of the workers that were here at Mason already,” the senior student added.

Villarroel doesn’t feel the leadership at George Mason has taken the concerns of the workers into earnest consideration. The rally from last month was the latest in a series of protests that date back to 2020.

“George Mason’s administration definitely knows this is an issue since we have been protesting for about a year and a half now. But since there have been so many protests for about a year and a half, I feel what they did to quote-unquote ‘solve it’ was get a new contractor,” Villarroel explained.

“Clearly, getting a new contractor didn’t solve the problem and I think they are very much aware of that because we are still protesting,” Villarroel added. “I feel like as of right now, it doesn’t seem like it’s one of their first priorities on their checklist.”

As Villaroel and fellow protestors await a measurable change in regard to GMU janitors, she feels the rallies have raised awareness and united the campus community.

“I just think this issue – as terrible as it may be – it’s unifying the campus community to make sure that we’re all fighting for something that we believe is right,” the student activist said.

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