When the pandemic hit, I adjusted to remote work as a University of Washington graduate student while my mother, who is a UW custodian, continued to rise at 3 a.m. each day. She and her co-workers were charged with laying a foundation of safety from COVID-19 while worrying about how the virus would affect their health. At UW, many custodians are immigrants and refugees. Many are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Because of long-standing systemic health and social inequities, they are at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.
Together, my parents have worked more than 58 years as custodians. So, I’ve long been aware of the pride and challenges of their work. But the pandemic made clearer than ever how overworked and undervalued custodians are.
It’s past time to honor custodial work with hazard pay, livable wages, protection, and care. Given that more than half of custodians are BIPOC—many of them are also immigrants—making these investments in custodian well-being is a critical step toward advancing racial justice.
To show my deep gratitude to my mother and her colleagues, during much of the pandemic, I delivered weekly breakfasts, cloth masks, and thank-you notes during their 4:45 a.m. clock-in. I collected donations and partnered with a local shoe store to provide over 200 custodians with comfortable, safe shoes. But I knew they needed more.
To learn about the health impacts of their work and shine a light on this often invisible profession, I facilitated a photography-based storytelling project with 16 custodians from September through October 2020. What I learned about their working conditions shocked me.
Custodians suffered from aching feet and backs. They worried about harsh cleaning chemicals and contracting the coronavirus. They mourned a colleague who died from COVID-19. They spoke of long commutes and expensive parking, and being unable to afford living in an increasingly expensive and gentrifying Seattle. They also shared painful stories of racial discrimination and feeling belittled by people they encounter during their shifts.
One custodian told me, “[Just] because they [have] a higher education … it doesn’t mean that they can just … put us down just like that. I mean, we accept it! That we are custodians, but at least show us some respect, as we show them respect too. What if we don’t clean their room? And then they gonna go complain. But us, we cannot go complain how they treat us.”
Sadly, challenging work conditions are also common for the nearly 2 million custodians working across the U.S.
Custodians make an average of $31,410 per year, hardly a living wage. As a result, many hold second jobs. I know the toll of this firsthand. My father held a second job as a factory worker for years before he passed away. Salaries are even lower for women, and they often face an added burden of balancing work with caregiving duties.
When I was born, my grandmother had to immigrate from the Philippines to care for me so my parents could work through the night on the swing shift, which is from 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. During the day, my grandmother was a caregiver for older adults. This balancing act is far too common a stressor for families trying to survive custodial worker wages.
Health disparities due to systemic racism and other social determinants of health inevitably affect a high proportion of custodians. On top of that, 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that custodians working in buildings suffered almost 34,000 nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work—likely an underreporting of incidents.
Another more recent 2020 Washington State study found that custodians routinely experienced mistreatment, including discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation, that led to physical and mental health strains. Additionally, the pandemic has worsened risks due to COVID-19 exposure and the heightened demands of cleaning protocols.
Despite their challenging working conditions, the custodians I connected with through my photography project expressed pride in a job that sustains their lives, and now more than ever, the lives of others. When asked what they need to get through this challenging time, one custodian shared, “It is very important for every person to smile [at us]. They should give us a little bit [of] respect and care for the custodians so our job will be easier. … Some people, they just look at us, you know, a little bit different from them, but we are just the same too. We work hard for everybody.”
Based on my experience being raised by custodians and through my photography project, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of how to uplift custodial worker rights. Custodians need employers and policymakers to ensure social and racial equity with the following investments and changes:
- Offer hazard pay and a livable wage ($15 per hour, or even more in expensive localities).
- End the custodian gender wage gap by ensuring equal pay across genders.
- Offer public transit subsidies, or offer free parking in regions with poor access to transportation and limited affordable housing.
- Ensure safety from COVID-19 infection, including access to effective personal protective equipment and vaccines and enforcement of universal masking policies.
- Offer opportunities for rest and rejuvenation, including adequate break rooms.
- Provide ergonomic equipment, such as lightweight, height-adjustable mops, proper harness fittings for vacuum backpacks, protection from harmful chemicals, and comfortable shoes.
- Offer paid sick leave for vaccination, symptoms of ill health, COVID-19 testing, and caregiving duties.
- Offer affordable, flexible child care.
- Offer high-quality, accessible health care.
- Protect workers from discrimination and harassment by creating a culture that promotes respect and psychological safety for all workers. Even with those changes, workers need avenues for voicing concerns to managers without fear of retaliation. UW recently launched a bias incident reporting tool where employees can anonymously make such reports. This promising solution should be available to custodial and other low-wage workers everywhere.
- Offer robust access to interpretation services and translation of health and work-related materials.
- Have ongoing safe, respectful conversations with custodians to co-create solutions that serve unique needs within their workplace context (e.g., better understand the immediate needs, supports, and obstacles faced by custodians, including those in our undocumented community).
These changes will have immediate, short-term costs. However, the low-wage labor shortage is making it even clearer that private sector employers must pay a living wage to be viable. Furthermore, a progressive tax on high earners can fund compensation for workers in public sector jobs. Investing in custodians’ well-being will pay off in the long run by reducing health care costs, workers’ compensation payouts, and turnover.
Despite the tremendous stress of the pandemic, my mother’s satisfaction in her work remains, as it does with other custodians I’ve met throughout the years. The time is now for us to nurture a culture of care for those who care for our spaces, and to pay and protect them in a way that acknowledges their value as workers who are truly essential to our society.
See this piece’s accompanying photo essay, The Dignity of Custodians.
Acknowledgement: I want to thank my parents, who inspire me to lead this advocacy work; the custodians who shared their stories and lived experiences, and all custodians who keep our communities safe and healthy; and Katherine Hoerster, my graduate adviser, who provided mentorship on this essay. This piece represents the personal views of the author, and does not reflect the position of the University of Washington.