New York, NY – Teachers, faculty, staff and school leaders at K-to-12 public schools might be prepared to delay in-person classes or even strike if they are forced to come back to educational institutions on Sept. 10, out of COVID-19 safety concerns. But the lockdown has not stopped members of IUOE Local 94 from continuing to maintain those school buildings over the past six-months.
Business Agent William Caramico of IUOE Local 94 represents the approximately 1,200 members of his union — firemen and stationary engineers — that serve the 1,400 school buildings across the city.
“We have never left the schools,” Caramico says. “We have been staying at the schools since day one!”
Caramico considers his members to be like soldiers and the people they protect day in and day out like their own children.
“We keep these schools running for the safety of the children and that is what we are going to continue doing,” says Caramico. “We run the boilers, we run the heat, we run the ventilation, we run the schools and we work for the custodians, which is [IUOE Local] 891. This is our main job. We keep the school going.”
President Robert Troeller of IUOE Local 891 represents the school custodial engineers who worked throughout the lockdown, too.
“The custodial engineers and their crew were deemed essential employees from the beginning,” says Troeller. “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,” says Troeller. “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, however, 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 minor maintenance, painting and cleaning.
“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, according to Troeller.
“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,” say 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 government shutdown on March 15, Local 891 needed 100 more custodial engineers to help manage the public school buildings that more than one million students attend, according to Troeller. The government closure further ceased discussions to address the issue.
Troeller believes that the current roster of school custodians will have the buildings up and running by Sept. 10, but is concerned about the unrealistic demands to have 30-minute cleanings while social distancing with students and staff in them while understaffed.
“They are saying someone is going to be stocking the bathrooms every half-hour, giving the classrooms sanitary wipes and sanitizers, walking around cleaning surfaces all day long and they expect more work at night — but we are not getting the workers to do that,” says Troeller. “I do not know how it is going to get done.”
Troeller has approximately 800 workers in his union that supervise 7,000 to 8,000 custodians.
“There are many vacancies for custodial workers as well that are represented by 32BJ SEIU,” says Troeller. “A lot of positions in our ranks have been lost to attrition, but now they are looking to hire people to replace those we lost, not the additional people that we need for the work.”
Despite work to install new windows, replace roofs and keep the brickwork pointed, Troeller did note 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,” says Troeller.
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,” said Troeller. “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.”
Jamal Johnson, an 18-year veteran cleaner and member/representative of 32BJ SEIU, was nervous at the start of the pandemic, but has learned all the social distancing guidelines and received the Personal Protective Equipment that he needed to continue his work since March.
“As long as we practice the safety guidelines I’m not afraid of schools reopening,” said Johnson. “I’m painting as we speak.”
As millions of workers throughout the city face job loss, Johnson is thankful that he was able to still work during the crisis.
“We were fortunate that we haven’t had any work stoppage,” said Johnson. “At my school, we had everything that we needed, but we just had to apply social distance in cleaning the classrooms and that was a bit of an adjustment.”
Usually, three people clean a room at a time, but with applying social distancing one person has to apply a solution for cleaning a room, another person has to wax the room after the other has left and a third person vacuums the room once it is empty.
“We usually work in groups, but we had to change,” said Johnson. “Unfortunately, with the school closed down, it gave us more time to do work. It schools weren’t closed and we had to apply that to our routine, it would have been a much longer process, so we took advantage of that.”
At I.S. 204 in Long Island City, Johnson has been working on fixtures, fixing cords and corridors, stripping and waxing floors along with painting.
“I’m worried about school getting pushed back, because if it gets delays cleaners like myself who have been working the entire time during the pandemic with the deficits, what room is there for us if there are not even any in-person classes going forward,” said Johnson. “I’m collaborative and I understand their concerns, but if school gets pushed back from September to November, I cannot think how they are going to justify us working during that time with no activity.”
Johnson works at a relatively spacious school in Queens that is not overcrowded I.S. 204 has a student body of 397.
“We are ready. Right now, we are making the building shine,” said Johnson. “We are doing extra things right now to brighten up the building.”
Johnson’s main concern is for the kids.
“Some of the kids will go outside, start talking and not social distance when they are not in the building, but then come inside,” said Johnson. “I just hope the school has its own social distancing measures in place. I’m concerned, but I will be protecting myself for any situation for my family. The members are ready, but they just have to practice social distancing.”