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 – International Union of Operating Engineers [IUOE] Local 891 President Robert Troeller represents many of the school custodial engineers who continue to work hard throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The custodial engineers and their crew were deemed essential employees from the beginning,” Troeller told LaborPress. “A number of sites were being used as Regional Enrichment Centers, they call them RECs, which basically provide educational and babysitting services for the children of essential workers.”
The workers of Local 891 had to work through the pandemic to upgrade hundreds of other school buildings while those sites were also used as food centers and as alternative COVID-19 testing locations.
“Most of my workers were doing work that they normally only do over the summer, but now just more of it in order to get the school prepared and ready to open in September,” Troeller says. “Even during the curfew we were allowed to travel to the buildings in case of emergencies.”
Healthcare issues and pre-existing conditions have prevented some workers from working during the crisis, but other members were ready to pick up the slack, according to Troeller. Typically, Local 891 members manage one large school building and/or a smaller school building.
“There are probably well over 100 vacancies of custodial engineers that the Board [of Education] has not have replaced, so for that my members operate on a rotating basis every eight weeks,” Troeller says. “So now they occasionally have a second or third assignment.”
Local 891 members do more of the administrative work and make sure that the heating, air, ventilation and fire alarms systems are in place, according to Troeller. They also oversee the minor maintenance, painting and cleaning gets done.
“They schedule the crew and allocate resources,” says Troeller. “Each of my members has a budget. The principal has the budget to run the schools; my members have the budget to run the buildings. They have a budget for supplies and a budget for manpower, then they have to utilize it for the fiscal year.”
The summertime is when the Local 891 members usually manage the deep cleaning, stripping, waxing and painting projects and since they have worked during the pandemic they had more time to do a lot of that work.
“Our big concern now, is if and when the students and the staff come back, we don’t have the level of resources that they are going to expect,” says Troeller. “There just aren’t enough men and women that work for us to do the tasks that they are telling people everyday ‘this is going to get done.'”
Before the coronavirus shutdown began on March 15, Troeller says Local 891 needed 100 more custodial engineers to help manage the public school buildings that more than one million students attend. The shutdown, however, put the kibosh on discussions about the issue.
Despite work to install new windows, replace roofs and keep the brickwork pointed, Troeller notes that the oldest buildings in the public school systems date back to the 1800s.
“The buildings are in fairly good shape, but there is a lot of concerns over ventilation systems in those buildings, but in a lot of cases the only ventilation system is the windows and they are blocked from opening more than six-inches from the bottom for safety reasons,” Troeller says.
The city does not have the resources to replace the HVAC system or add a system to a building that doesn’t have it, according to Troeller.
“That will take years,” he says. “They are attempting to repair the things that have been broken down for awhile so they are operating as designed, but they are not changing the design or the system. Our job is to maintain them. If they need to be replaced that will be [the job of School Construction Authority]. That will take years to plan and to get that done. It will also be a great deal of money.”