Blaming the janitor

Here’s the dirt on Portland State.

There’s too much of it and the custodial service hired to cleanthe buildings isn’t doing the job, according to Robyn Pierce,assistant director of facilities, and Mindy Haverty, PSU custodialcoordinator.

Unfortunately, they say, by law, PSU has a limited choice on whodoes the janitorial job. The 1977 Oregon legislature passed a lawunder which the university is obligated to hire staff from thePortland Habilitation Center (PHC) – an organization which employsonly people with disabilities.

Not that Pierce and Haverty object to people with disabilitiescleaning the buildings, if they would do it. Too often they don’t.Haverty finds herself trying to process handfuls of requests forjanitorial work orders, which she passes along to PHC. Frequently,these involve such basic essentials as failure to install toiletpaper and failure to empty bulging wastebaskets. Things get betterfor a few days, then they slide again, she said.

The 1977 law is called the “products of disabled individuals”act. The act directs all state and local governments, schooldistricts and other tax-supported political bodies in Oregon topurchase goods and services from a Qualified RehabilitationFacility (QRF) when the product or service meets theirrequirements. Pierce said PHC is the only QRF with resources largeenough to service an institution as big as Portland State.

PHC has similar contracts with a number of other public bodies,under the terms required by the law. These include OHSU, PortlandPublic Schools and Portland International Airport. In fact, Havertysaid, PHC may have overextended itself, since it has taken someworkers away from PSU and assigned them to other clients.

Haverty called the level of performance of PHC workers”deplorable.” Complaints and work orders have to pass through fourhands before they finally reach the front lines.

“Things get corrected for awhile, but three days later we havethe same problem again,” Haverty said. Haverty said she spends muchof her time chasing down the fulfillment of work orders forjanitorial attention

Pierce voiced continuing frustration with the lack ofperformance.

“We talk to them, we write to them and they improve for a fewmore days. But we have to constantly remind them,” she said. Shesaid the company continually replies, “Give us a month more; we’regoing to turn it around.” But they never do, she said.

Asked what she saw as the most pressing cause of the problem,Haverty said, “absenteeism.” Frequently, she said, as an example,two persons may be assigned to clean in each of the two sciencebuildings. If one worker fails to appear, the other must attempt toclean both buildings with one set of equipment, all in oneshift.

According to Debbie Houston, vice president of buildingmaintenance for PHC, much of the problem lies in the lack offunding for custodial services at PSU. Years ago, PSU used to haveas many as 80 janitors or staff, now they have only about 40,Houston said.

With so few employees and so many students it can be hard tokeep up, according to Houston. As soon as a bathroom is cleaned, itbecomes “filthy in no time at all.”

Houston pointed to the service that PHC has provided to itsother clients in Portland, which she says have made custodialservices more of a priority.

“If you look at PHC at other places around town you’ll find veryhigh quality,” she said.

The university pays about $1.4 million a year to PHC for theservice, but the not-for-profit company would like the universityto pay another $300,000 a year, which Houston says is because theuniversity asked for a specific upgrade in the type of serviceprovided by PHC.

“They changed to scope of work, that’s what raised theincrease,” Houston said.

PHC workers take over mainly on the graveyard shift, sinceclasses and groups are active on the campus from early morninguntil at least 10 p.m.

PHC has a short list of minimum requirements for janitorialapplicants. They must be able to document their disability. Theymust be at least 18, physically able to perform janitorial work andable to work with minimal supervision and no criminal convictionsof theft or burglary. Drug users are not turned away, as evidencedby a statement in the company’s brochure, quoting Michelle Large:”Having work helps you not want to go out and use.”

Disabilities can include developmental and learningdisabilities, mental illness, physical limitation, hearing orvision loss, congenital disorders and seizure and substance abuseissues. Haverty recalled seeing a one-armed man attempting tomanipulate a broom.

So aggravating the janitorial problem became that Jay Kenton,vice president for finance and administration, appointed acommittee to review the nature, scope and manner in which custodialservices are provided.

A survey conducted by graduate student David E. Hall in the fallof 2003 showed that people felt janitorial services were notmeeting their minimum expectations in classrooms, lecture halls,labs, conference rooms, restrooms, offices and public spaces.Restrooms received high expectancy ratings, offices the lowest. Theoverall rating of custodial service balanced about equally amongpoor, fair and average, with the excellent category getting verylow marks. Responsiveness of staff when additional services wererequested was rated as good. Service skills were rated mainlyaverage. A large number of respondents disagreed with a statementthat custodial services are now sufficient.

Most concerning in the survey were the comments listedin the survey report. Among them were: “Dissatisfied because thearea is just generally dirty.” “Dust bunnies grow under chairs anddesks.” “The service in the first floor bathroom is abysmal.” “Ihave never been in a dirtier, shabbier classroom and officeenvironment than that of Neuberger Hall! It is no wonder that mystudents and I are constantly sick.” “They never dust. Theysometimes don’t show up. They never clean the bathroom floor.” “Myoffice trash hasn’t been emptied in about a month.”

Pierce presented the conclusions of the custodial reviewcommittee to Mike Irish, director of facilities, last March. Theprincipal recommendation was “The committee asks that the directorexplore the possibility of self performing the work with an inhouse staff of custodians and student labor.”

The committee report addressed the requirements of thelegislature’s QRF law. The committee “believes this contractor maynot be able to meet the requirements for delivery of services oncampus.” The committee presented a list of suggestions. Some didnot directly affect PHC, such as installation of auto flushmechanisms in restrooms and an emphasis on the curb appeal of thecampus.

Pierce conceded that a total in-house service might meet seriousfinancial obstacles, since a university staff would require all thebenefits of regular employees. She does feel that student labor hassome promise, perhaps working in conjunction with PHCemployees.

According to Houston, PHC is making some efforts to improve thequality of service at PSU such as acquiring more efficientequipment that can get big jobs done by fewer people in less time,and providing more training to new staff. The company now uses ariding scrubber to clean large hallway floors, and also secureddonations of better toilet paper dispensers from a supplier.

“We’re always looking at better equipment,” Houston said.

The Helen Gordon Child Development Center was able to fire PHCand hire a minority contractor after a PHC employee left acontainer of prescription medicine where the tykes would find it.This qualified as a violation of the legal edict that PHC should beproviding a product or service that meets the requirements of thefacility. Leaving a prescription where children might pick it upwas regarded as a violation of the obligation to meet the center’ssafety requirements.

Pierce and Haverty exhibited a copy of standard CustodialStaffing Guidelines for Education Facilities. It described fivelevels of appearance factors at each cleaning level, ranging fromlevel 1, orderly spotlessness, down to level 5, unkemptneglect.

PHC, Pierce claimed, said its goal was to produce an unlistedlevel 6, below the standard of unkempt neglect. PSU believes itshould be entitled to at least the mid-level 3, casual inattention,which would see floors cleaned and trash containers emptied dailyand odor-free.

Pierce and Haverty encouraged anyone interested in the custodialstudy or any other matters relating to custodial services to accessthe Web site This gives a direct link to custodialservices, the 2003 survey, information on work orders for cleanupsand reports of janitorial neglect.