By Christopher Goins
Break room. What break room?
For as long as some housekeepers at the University of Maryland College Park can remember, they didn’t have such an accommodation for eating lunch. Instead, they have been eating lunch next to mops, brooms, dust pans, and cleaning sprays in tight janitor closets.
This, alongside not being able to punch-in at the beginning of their work shift at the building closest to their work area, were among the working conditions that did not change up until the eve of a planned rally by a UMCP housekeepers union last week. On Wednesday night, the workers received a letter from University of Maryland’s Facilities Management Division division detailing changes to workplace conditions.
On Thursday, about 70 people attended the rally in front of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union building where members of a union that represents university housekeepers demanded to be treated with dignity, a better workplace, and higher wages.
State Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George’s County Democrat, spoke at the rally and lent his support to the workers, who average about $11.50 per hour. “Your voices are being heard and I have your back,” he said.
Letter seen as a win
The letter spelled victory for many of the workers.
In the memo, Housekeeping Services Coordinator Anthony Stewart wrote that he was “recently” told that some workers were eating lunch in their housekeeping closets. But Stuart Katzenberg, an AFSCME organizer, said that the practice had gone on for 10 years.
“Our members are sick and tired of being treated like less than human, being relegated to closets to eat, being verbally and physically abused, keys thrown at them, as well as our members want to be paid a decent wage,” Katzenberg said.
Maria Ayala, employed as a housekeeper since 2005, said that she developed asthma on the job in the chemistry building about five years ago. Her doctor prescribed a mask for her.
Jeff Pittman, the communications director for AFSCME, said that workers aren’t made to eat in the closets “but it’s pretty much common knowledge by the university that this happens.”
Under the changes detailed in the letter, housekeepers will now be able to eat in designated areas such as lounges and kitchens in all buildings. Previously, some supervisors had told them not to use the lounges, according to Pittman. Their breaks are only 30 minutes, so many housekeepers didn’t have time to leave the buildings they were cleaning to find another place to eat on the campus.
Union members meet locked doors
Rally goers marched a few blocks in the heat from the Stamp Student Union to the administration building to deliver a letter to the university president demanding “dignity at work,” fair wages “not reduced by parking costs” and “clean and safe working conditions,” only to be met by locked doors.
“Some of these women actually clean this building,” Katzenberg said. “The front door’s never locked,” adding that there were police watching the marchers. “That’s just another sign of the disrespect they give us as workers here at College Park.”
Eventually, a few of the workers were let into the building and were allowed to deliver the letter. And some of those who emerged said there were six police officers inside, an unusual number to be in place at one time, Katzenberg notes.
For many of the workers, the work shift begins at 4 a.m. Parking meters are only on for part of their shift, yet they are charged for eight hours of parking, Katzenberg claimed.
An annual parking pass costs $430 for union and non-union employees who earn less than $50,000 a year.
“Most full time UMD housekeepers earn less than $23,000 annually,” said Pittman. “The high cost of parking is a significant hit to the salary of these workers.”
Some AFSCME members, like Antonia Escobar, a member of the collective bargaining team, make $10.80 per hour. The average hourly wage is under $11.50. The university employs about 260 full-time housekeepers year-round and there are an undetermined number of part-time housekeepers, according to Pittman.
Union members show up despite fears
Katzenberg says that it was a “big step” for many of the workers to come out for the demonstration because of the fear of retaliation.
Ayala said that some housekeeping supervisors and team leaders yell at workers. Katzenberg added that the supervisors and leaders have threatened the workers beneath them.
“They can be a monstrous employer,” said Katzenberg.
In May 2011, the Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA) published a report noting alleged instances of racial discrimination, sexual abuse, and verbal degradation. Katzenberg said that the union met with BFSA and the university president and the president “assured” them that the problems would go away, but now some of the problems are still there.
On July 8, AFSCME will meet with the administration to bargain for new contract. “They’ve not been willing to budge, that’s why we have to use these tactics,” Katzenberg said.
“The University of Maryland is committed to a healthy workplace for all employees,” said Brian Ullman, assistant vice president of marketing and communications, in an e-mailed statement. “Last December, a University work group submitted a comprehensive series of recommendations to cultivate a more respectful, supportive and inclusive work environment here on campus,” he continued.
“Much progress has been made on these steps, and we are dedicated to working collaboratively to continue this important work,” said Ullman.