Anna Loria | March 30, 2021

Custodial Staff Reflects on Protecting the Nest

SUNY Brockport janitors and cleaners open up about what it’s like to work on the sanitizing side of the front lines.

Pandemic cleaners story

While “Protect the Nest” is everyone’s job this academic year at SUNY Brockport, such a feat wouldn’t be possible without the 85 custodial staff members in Facilities & Planning who work round-the-clock to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

“Essential workers out there are taking on much of the risk to keep others safe,” said Assistant Director of Facilities Operations Larry Brien, dubbed “The Corona Guy” when the pandemic procedures picked up this past fall.

According to Brien, the typical cleaning routine for Hartwell Hall, for example, would require five housekeeping staff members and about eight hours. This semester, 10 people are working in the building throughout a 24-hour period to achieve adequate disinfecting in addition to standard cleaning.

“They’re coming in every day to carry out a very robust cleaning schedule. It’s a ton of work and sacrifice,” said Brien. “I’m so proud of our people.”

The Port caught up with a few janitors and cleaners to learn what their days are like during a pandemic:

Pandemic cleaners story

How has your job evolved since the onset of the pandemic?

Cleaner Christy Moyer: “Our job has most certainly evolved and become the center of maintaining a safe environment. What once was a specific routine with direct parameters has now become a group effort throughout the entire campus. For instance, the overnight teams cover multiple buildings throughout the evening. Each team may have three to four buildings. The scheduling allows us to work with the same individual every night, helping to keep any viral contamination down from within the cleaning staff. There are different ways of cleaning. One is disinfecting (can’t see the germs), another is picking up debris, as well as removing visually seen spills or spots. Disinfecting has become the major focus since the pandemic started. Each building is unique in specific duties. I work overnights, and we have a spray team. We use a disinfectant and mist spray all sitting areas and touch points within each building. The campus uses multiple chemicals to kill any and all viral agents that may be carried by a member of our community.”

Supervising Janitor Jill Young: “The pandemic has changed much of our day-to-day practices. We deliver meals to students in precautionary quarantine and isolation. [Many] students no longer dine in the dining halls, resulting in three times the amount of trash for the cleaners to carry out of the residence halls. In addition, we disinfect all of the touch points in the buildings four times during a single shift. We also unlock areas in the buildings each morning that we didn’t before the pandemic.”

Janitor Juanita Couch: “When the pandemic hit, we took extra measures in making sure that all buildings were disinfected every two hours. We also have to wear masks every day and social distance.”

Pandemic cleaners story

How has the pandemic made your job more challenging?

Moyer: “The challenge with the pandemic has been to change our focus. Most people look at floors and determine it needs to be cleaned. The pandemic has put into perspective that most communicable diseases will spread through hygiene, touch points, and community property (bathrooms, locker rooms, break rooms, desks, etc.) The floors may appear unattractive and require attention, but we have to focus on the unseen at this time. The entire campus is disinfected every two hours, however, the day and night staff remain in one building and repeatedly disinfect touch points. This has all become a challenge to the cleaning staff, because we have been taught to remove visual debris and spots. Of course the garbage is still emptied daily and the bathrooms checked more frequently. The cleaning staff signs off on a board showing the appropriate attention to that specific area.”

Supervising Janitor Sondra Aman: “The pandemic has been a challenge for the afternoon shift. The afternoon staff disinfects every building on campus, including residence halls, every two hours. It can be challenging when you are short-staffed and then a pool pops up positive, so then you are down even more. For example, a positive pool once placed seven afternoon shift employees in precautionary quarantine. The remaining employees took on extra responsibilities to protect the nest by disinfecting. That is what you call great teamwork!”

Pandemic cleaners story

What makes you proud of the work you do?

Moyer: “I feel as though ‘the cleaning staff’ is one of the most important positions in society. We can keep the health care system and societal illness at all time lows, simply by killing the germs, bacteria, and fungi that breed in infrastructures. Of course it’s a group effort, because dirt and dust hold these germs. We mask up and social distance as well as change our filtration systems to improve air quality. We do what most people will not do, and it is far from glamorous. I am proud to be an essential employee and needed. This year, ‘the cleaner’ has been appreciated.”

Cleaner Kellie Weatherbee: “Helping in all aspects, from delivering meals, to cleaning, to being a front line person at Subway. When you can do several jobs and not limit yourself to one, that makes you indispensable.”

Couch: “It is comforting to know that the extra steps we have had to take to protect the nest have made a huge difference in keeping our [positive COVID-19 cases] down compared to other colleges.”

Young: “Hands down the most rewarding aspect of my job is keeping our students safe. Without the cleaners, the campus would not be open. I am proud of my team. This year has been incredibly stressful. Despite that, they show up with a good attitude and protect the nest.”

Pandemic cleaners story

What is the most interesting or unique experience you’ve had while at work in the past year?

Moyer: “The unique experience for me has been working in the Gordon building. I could be busy or I could have it real easy, depending on the number of isolated students there. Being on the COVID team means I go to various residence halls as well as being made available whenever I get a call to do something. I could have been scheduled after a deep night shift or before I started my shift. I committed to 16 hours a week overtime, and it is a unique experience, because it is not like staying in one building doing the same things for 16 hours. The COVID team is entirely different, however, we are all part of the cleaning staff. We do laundry, deliver food, deliver supplies, and disinfect the dwelling.”

Aman: “My most interesting experience is working in Gordon Hall during the pandemic. I am the person who does the scheduling to make sure we have coverage in the building when we have students that are being quarantined or isolated there. There are 12 employees, including myself, on the Gordon team. They work 16 hours a day and give up their weekend to take care of the students. They are responsible for delivering their meals, doing their laundry, delivering mail, and cleaning and disinfecting rooms seven days after the occupying students are released. Sometimes, it can be a little challenging when you have to deliver items to students quarantining in their respective residence halls while they are waiting for their test results. One weekend, we had to deliver about 450 meals around campus. I am proud to say we have a great Gordon staff that works as a team!”

Weatherbee: “Getting to know students on a personal level and finding out that we can have things in common, despite the age gap.”

Pandemic cleaners story

What’s something you wish others realized about your job?

Moyer: “I wish that society did not look down on our job. Certainly, cleaning does not require a degree, but it does require loyalty. We have to be dedicated to doing something that is not always acknowledged, and effort is put forth on something not always appreciated. Loyalty means ‘Yes, I did disinfect that area.’ and actually meaning it is done. Most career paths require visuals. Of course, housekeeping has visuals, but it requires doing something that looks like it does not need to be done. A sink full of dishes is a visual, however, dish soap does not sanitize. The health inspector looks for washing, rinsing, and sanitizing. If your cleaner is not dedicated and loyal, many people could get sick.”

Aman: “I wish all staff members appreciated what the housekeepers do. Some think because they are cleaners they don’t have college degrees, which is not the case at all. We have numerous cleaners who have degrees.”

Young: “That the cleaning staff is essential to our campus. Too often they are overlooked and under-appreciated.”

Cleaning Tips From the Pros

• The brown paper towels you find around campus are great for cleaning mirrors. —Cleaner Kellie Weatherbee

• For a clean-smelling bathroom, use a little bleach in your mop water to clean floors and Lysol concentrate and water to clean sinks and toilets. —Janitor Juanita Couch

• Clean and disinfect a computer keyboard by dipping a toothbrush in a half vinegar, half water solution and gently scrubbing in between keys. —Supervising Janitor Sondra Aman

• Disinfect while performing another task. Top to bottom cleaning is just that. Never clean a floor then attempt to clean visuals at eye level, because you may need to clean the floor again. —Cleaner Christy Moyer

• You can remove wax from a carpet with paper towels and an iron. —Supervising Janitor Jill Young

• Turn off nearby light fixtures when using Windex to clean a mirror, as the heat from the light could cause streaking. —Cleaner Scott Bennett

• Scott also recommends a mix of liquid Dawn soap and vinegar for tough stains. And for a simple chemical-free cleaner, try 1 1/2 cups of baking soda, 1/2 cup of warm water, 1/2 cup of liquid soap, and two tablespoons of white distilled vinegar.