November 20, 2012
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy many schools in the city’s public school system were severely damaged, forcing thousands of students to miss school for an entire week or attend class and learn in makeshift buildings. Three weeks after Sandy, however, more schools are reopening thanks to the hard work of custodial engineers and cleaners. The irony is that 5,000 cleaners and handypersons represented by 32BJ SEIU have been working without a contract for five years with no pay increase and Local 891 custodial engineers are also without a new contract.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio toured damaged areas of I.S. 211 in Canarsie and showed his appreciation for the hard work the cleaners and custodial engineers exerted to reopen the school last Thursday by bringing lunch.
“This school is open today because the cleaners, custodial engineers and other staff worked nonstop for more than two weeks…putting aside their personal needs and those of their families to reopen the school for the community of I.S. 211.”
James Bond has been the school’s custodial engineer for the past four years. Mr. de Blasio thanked Bond for his efforts.
“They don’t get enough credit for what they do. The leader of the pack; I can’t help but say he’s living up to his namesake with his ingenuity and his ability to make things happen even when the chips are down. So James Bond, I thank you. I’ve been waiting all my life to meet you.”
Bond said in an interview that the surge created by Sandy caused one foot of flooding in the cafeteria and eight to 10 feet in the boiler room.
“We have two out of three boilers up and running thanks to the boiler mechanics working very late hours to restore them. The boilers were installed in 1958 and all the equipment is original; parts have been very hard to come by,” said Bond.
Despite the extensive flooding, Bond noted that matters could have been a lot worse had the school lost electricity.
“Luckily we didn’t lose power, which made cleaning up a bit easier. We were able to plug in water pumps and heavy-duty vacuums to suck up the water.”
Two blocks from I.S. 211 is P.S. 279, which wasn’t as lucky. Their basement was completely flooded and they didn’t have any portable gas generators to provide power during emergencies. But the school’s custodial staff pitched in to reopen I.S. 211.
Keith Williams has been working as a cleaner at I.S. 211 for 13 years. When he first saw how high the water had reached in the basement and boiler room, he was speechless.
“Water was everywhere. We didn’t know where to start. But we put on our water boots and plugged in the heavy-duty vacuums, which sucks up water 20 gallons at a time,” said Williams.
It took a long time to remove the water, even with the help of heavier equipment brought in by the Department of Education. But just when Williams and his co-workers thought the water was completely pumped out, it began to refill the basement and boiler room floors.
“There was so much water from the surge that water leaked from the walls. The walls were saturated and it seeped out onto the floor, leaving salt deposits behind. We were very lucky the storm didn’t generate heavy rain. Things would have been a lot worse,” Williams said.
During the Republican primaries earlier this year Newt Gingrich infamously said that New York’s custodial workforce is grossly overpaid and that their jobs should be given to high school students to inculcate a strong work ethic.
Robert Troeller, president and business manager of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers that represents custodial engineers and cleaners, said, “Everybody during the campaign said that city workers and state workers are only interested in collecting extensive benefits. But its municipal workers that respond in these types of emergencies. They’re the only ones running towards the danger, and not away.”