Cleaning staff members at University of Maryland call for better working conditions

June 27, 2013

At 4 a.m every workday, Vicenta Reyes starts cleaning classrooms, labs and halls at the University of Maryland in College Park. At 8 a.m., she goes inside a janitorial closet and sits next to cleaning supplies to eat her lunch.

The daily routine, Reyes and other cleaning staff members said, is part of a pattern of poor working conditions at U-Md., and on Thursday they staged a protest to publicize their concerns.

Joined by students and other university employees, cleaning staff members gathered in front of the Stamp Student Union. “We demand dignity,” read one sign. “No more verbal or labor abuse,” read another.

The protest was long overdue, said Reyes, who is 62 and has worked at U-Md. for almost 12 years. “For years, no one ever said anything about it,” she said. “Many are afraid of losing their jobs. I’m here because, as a worker, I need some respect.”

Reyes said that, at one point, the workers brought a microwave oven to work so they could warm their meals. But they were promptly told by the university that it had to go, she said.

The Washington Post contacted the U-Md. press office Thursday afternoon in an effort to obtain a response to the employees’ complaints. About 8:30 Thursday night, a university spokesman sent a statement to The Post. The statement, by Brian Ullmann, assistant vice president for university marketing and communications, did not address the protest or the complaints raised by the workers.

Hours before the protest, cleaning staff members received a letter from the university stating that facilities managers had identified areas where cleaning staff members can eat their lunch and that supervisors would provide a list on request.

The university employs about 250 full-time cleaning staff members, who are paid $10 an hour, Reyes said. She said the work is hard and sometimes hazardous. A few years ago, she broke her wrist, which cost her her second job, she said.

Antonia Escobar, 50, who has worked as a housekeeper at U-Md. for seven years, said safety and well-being are real concerns.

“We need safe buildings; we need to have the lights and A/C turned on at 4 a.m., especially now with the heat,” she said.

Escobar said she has been targeted as a “troublemaker.” She said she was punished for speaking up about an increase in their workload. For two years, she was required to clean four buildings instead of three.

“I’m here afraid of losing my job, and I might lose it, but I don’t want the next housekeepers to live through the same conditions as we do,” she said.

At 1:30 p.m., demonstrators walked from the student union to the administration building, where university President Wallace D. Loh has his office. They tried to enter the building to deliver a letter outlining their demands, but the doors were locked. About an hour later, a university police officer escorted two cleaning staff members into the building with the letter.

State Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s) addressed the demonstrators, saying he shared their concerns and would press U-Md. on the issues.

“For U-Md., it is not the brightest day,” Ramirez told the demonstrators. “It goes beyond salary.”

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