The Quiet Ambassadors
At 4 a.m., while most UA employees are still at home asleep, the first shift of custodial workers has already started cleaning the academic buildings. By the time most employees are arriving at their work stations, the 7 a.m. shift has already begun cleaning the residence halls. Then at 3:30 p.m., while other employees are thinking of the last couple of hours on the job, another shift of custodial staff is just getting started and will work until midnight.
These shifts are staggered so as to accommodate the needs of employees in the academic buildings and students who live in the residence halls.
“Each building has its own environment and our staff have to do their work around the needs of the employees in that building, so we don’t interrupt them,” said Suzanne Craft, director of custodial services.
While custodial staff may be unobtrusive, the results of their work are obvious: the University is recognized as one of the most attractive campuses in the country. Part of that attractiveness comes from the clean, orderly, inviting setting maintained by the 260 custodial services employees.
“Our work contributes to the mission of the University by creating a better environment for work and study,” Craft said. “And it attracts more people to the University. People feel better about being part of a space that’s attractive and well-maintained.”
Keeping a space as large as the Capstone neat and clean while working around the presence of faculty, staff and students is always a big job, but the 260 custodial services employees also must work around the rhythms of the school year. On game days in the fall, they spend hours maintaining the portable toilets, and then help facilities and grounds crews clean up after fans leave campus. The end of spring semester is especially busy, with many special activities and events. Gorgas Library stays open around the clock at exam time, and students leave mountains of coffee cups and energy drink cans. Then, there are the hundreds of residence hall rooms to be cleaned and readied.
“We team-clean the rooms. Some may take only 30 minutes to ready, while others may take three or four hours,” Craft said. In the past, the pace slowed in the summer, but that is no longer the case. “Students start arriving for Interim sometimes the day after commencement, so there’s no down time. And through the summer, with all the camps being held, we are constantly flipping rooms, preparing them for the next students to move in,” Craft said.
About two-thirds of the custodial staff work in academic and administrative buildings, and they also find the activity does not let up. Vannessa Harris, supervisor on the 4 a.m. shift, oversees the Mal Moore Athletic Facility and several other buildings.
“People realize we are busy during football season but with all our other sports, plus recruiting, there’s always something happening,” she said. Interim term is especially busy for them. That is the time when heavy cleaning jobs – floors, carpets, light fixtures, stairs – get done. “It takes six to eight weeks of planning and organizing staff and supplies to maximize this time,” Harris said. She also noted that while the University is busier than ever, “our equipment and supplies are a lot better than when I started 34 years ago!”
“Learn me something today.”
Ouida McCarter is a team leader among custodial staff working in the residence halls. She is also a steady, friendly presence, who knows the difference her job makes to students and to parents.
“Parents feel better about their children coming to the University when they see that they are living in a clean, healthy, safe environment, and we work hard to keep it that way,” she said.
“Some of the students don’t have any family close by. I’ll ask them what they have going on. They might say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a quiz’ or ‘I’m going to class.’ And I say to them, ‘Learn me something today.’ It lets them know I’m interested in them and their education.”
Not only are custodial staff in a position to say an encouraging word to students, they are also in a position to recognize when a student needs help. For example, sometimes, McCarter said, custodians notice when a student seems sick or unwell, and will alert the resident advisers that the student might need assistance.
The residence hall custodians are also a source of information for students, especially incoming freshmen. McCarter has been asked for advice about everything from hairdressers to churches.
Harris echoed this: “Visitors will ask us for directions, for information about buildings, about parking and buses, even about where to eat. People see us as approachable, and that’s good.”
The custodial employees are really ambassadors for the University, Craft said. “There are people who come on campus and see more of our staff than they do faculty or administrators. They may interact with us more. Even when they don’t see us, they see the results of our work in a clean, safe, healthy environment. We’re proud of our part in the University.”