Editor’s Note: On Thursday, November 12, LaborPress and Emblem Health bring you the first half of the 9th Annual LaborPress Heroes of Labor Awards. The virtual event beginning at 2 p.m. will feature a timely discussion with union leaders in the property service worker industry featuring IUOE Local 94’s Kuba Brown, 32BJ’s Shirley Aldebol, IUOE Local 891’s Robert Troeller and IUOE Local 30’s William Lynn. Click here to register for the event.
New York, NY — 32BJ SEIU represents over 175,000 members, and is the largest union of property services in the U.S. They work primarily as cleaners, property maintenance workers, doormen, security officers, window cleaners, building engineers, and school and food service workers. Its ranks include railroad and factory workers as well. They are concentrated in the Northeast but its reach extends to southern Florida and as far west as Montana.
Shirley Aldebol, is assistant to the president on leadership and staff development and oversees the public schools division in the New York Metro area, which includes more than 5,000 members who work as cleaners and handypersons in New York city’s public schools.
During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the essential duties 32BJ cleaners are tasked with include the careful sanitizing of schools — wiping down desks and other high-touch areas, and cleaning bathrooms. In some cases, cleaners will also clean the filters in crucial ventilation systems. Handypersons routinely do maintenance work such as repairing doors, but have now added such tasks as putting up protective plexiglass shields. In some smaller schools, handypersons also run boiler systems and HVAC.
LaborPress spoke to Aldebol about how the cleaners and handypersons in the schools have adapted to their new roles in the era of COVID-19.
LP: What are some of the new roles and challenges cleaners are taking on?
SA: “Cleaners work with the DOE (Department of Education) and employer to make sure CDC guidelines are being followed. At least once a day they wipe down the high-touch equipment. Bathrooms are constantly cleaned throughout the day. A lot has changed. There are not as many children in the classrooms as before. Many are remotely learning but [the cleaners] have to wipe down the soiled surfaces and take out the garbage which is more because the children are in there all day – eat lunch there instead of the lunchroom. Someone else comes in for the disinfection after they clean. They also use electrostatic sprayers to spray down the classroom. The disinfectant adheres to the surface and doesn’t go into the air. You don’t want the cleaners breathing that stuff in. We also work with the DOE to make sure they are not using toxic cleaners. Their health and safety and others’ is so important.”
LP: Did more staff need to be hired?
SA: Yes, we hired up to a little more to what we had pre-COVID-19. Between July and August part-time workers were given more hours. We hired close to 1,000 new workers; we had to step up hiring to prepare for the opening of schools.
LP: What has been the effect of COVID-19 on the workers?
SA: What’s happened has been quite horrible and devastating. People lost their lives, loved ones, friends, neighbors. [A member] may not get sick but their spouse lost their job. The impact is incredible. [But] members keep showing up even though they know in the back or front of their minds they’re putting themselves at risk.”