Jenni Walkup is a public anthropology MA student at American University who lives in Champaign. She works in education and writes about movements and social change. She’s very good at Bananagrams.
In August, 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Illinois instituted major shift changes for its approximately 300 custodial staff, disrupting the lives of many of its most vital workers. Building service workers were given less than a week’s notice to transition to sometimes drastically new schedules.
For example, Kevin Williams is a single father of a teenage son and a seven-year employee of the Building Services Department. Williams had built his life around working the 4 am early shift. Before leaving campus at 12:30 pm, he had cleaned three floors, scrubbed eight restrooms, and removed 200 gallons of waste. He finished in time to arrive at his second job, peer mentoring, or his third job, providing lawn care, by 1:00 pm. Just this year, Williams earned his dream job: coaching high school basketball in the evenings. Now, with the university eliminating his shift, he has had to quit two jobs and rearrange his life around a new schedule. “It’s like, kick me in the face and then [ask me to] trust fall for [you],” says Williams.
The changes were announced in July, but employees were not given their new schedules until Tuesday, August 4, two weeks before the start of fall classes. “I feel like you can’t just spring that on us,” said another worker, who had been asked to mark his shift preferences on a slip of paper just one week earlier. Final assignments were made in a closed-door meeting and announced on Tuesday for implementation the following weekend. “We were told nothing,” recalled another, who lives with his wife and small child. “There was no communication. That put a lot of stress on my family life.”
Another building service worker, let’s call him Lenny, was moved from the early day shift to an 11 pm start time, a full 18-hour difference. When he was hired at the university over two years ago, Lenny worked a one-year probationary period on the 11 pm shift. It was hell. Getting off work at 7 am, he would arrive home after his wife and son had left for the day. He would fall asleep until early evening, and spend a few moments with his family in the evening. That whole year, Lenny wasn’t able to sleep beside his wife, who went to bed as he left for work each evening. When his probationary period ended, Lenny earned a position on the early morning shift. He started picking his son up from school in the afternoons. As of early August, however, Lenny has once more been placed on the 11pm – 7 am shift, this time with no end in sight.
Elimination of the Early Day Shift
The most extreme feature of the schedule changes is the elimination of the early day shift, which Kevin Williams and 122 colleagues had built their lives around. Corbin Smith, then the Building Services program manager, introduced the shift in 2013 to address negative feedback from building staff. Smith had researched Building Services programs at comparable Big Ten schools, and redesigned the schedule to improve relationships with building staff and allow custodial workers to self-manage. “We want our workers to be more flexible in performing the work, more attentive to customers, more self-directed and empowered,” said Smith in a 2013 department newsletter; “the early day shift allows them to accomplish their work in a timely manner, more efficiently, and more resourcefully.” The “Corbin Shift,” as it became known, was a success, and became popular among workers.
The Corbin Shift began at 4 am and allowed workers to clean according to their knowledge of each building and its needs. Building service workers labored alongside building faculty and staff for half of their shift, simplifying communication and building relationships. Classrooms and high traffic bathrooms were cleaned first, before morning classes. Early day shift members worked quickly, using battery-powered leaf blowers to clean classrooms at maximum efficiency. They developed informal communications like group texts to quickly address needs of faculty and staff. If a student tried to replace an empty water cooler bottle and dropped a full one on the floor, or a department’s impromptu lunch-and-learn resulted in overflowing trash bins, they could simply text their building’s service workers directly. Simplified communication channels, fostered by direct relationships, made work easier and more pleasurable all around.
With the abrupt elimination of the early day shift, 123 members of the University of Illinois “community,” have been hung out to dry. Suddenly, they are unable to pick their children up from school, to make regular doctors’ appointments for chronic conditions, or to eat dinner with their spouses. They may face new child care costs and the loss of income once provided by second or third jobs. Those who took the early shift in order to provide care for special needs children or ailing family members are scrambling now to make rapid adjustments. The building service workers’ union-negotiated contract requires fourteen days’ notice of any shift changes, a stipulation which was waived in this case. The same contract prohibits workers from striking, or even filing complaints, over managerial staffing decisions. [See the Service Employees International Union response in this issue.]
Since Corbin’s time, workers have experienced increasing micro-management, informal communications have been shut down, and other building staff must submit official requests to receive service. Under the new guidelines, workers’ time is accounted for on a minute-by-minute basis, by means of schedules that stipulate not only which classrooms to clean at what time, but which elevators to take when doing so. For example, one such sheet contains separate instructions for 9:25 am, 9:39 am, 9:43 am, 9:47 am, 9:51 am, 9:53 am, 9:55 am and 10:00 am. It contains errors, such as instructing workers to clean rooms during active class periods and to close restrooms for 45-minute cleanings during peak usage times. Nonetheless, building service workers can be punished for operating just a few minutes off schedule.
“COVID has Nothing to Do with It”
Many workers recognize these changes for what they are, a tightening of managerial control enacted under the pretense of COVID-19 prevention. “COVID has nothing to do with it,” said one bluntly, “it’s all an illusion.” The University claims that the changes will allow for 24/7 custodial coverage, which was already provided by the prior system. Building service workers have not been offered hazard pay, and there has been no promise to return to prior schedules when the danger subsides.
Increasingly, the department treats its workers like automatons, disempowering them from acting beyond their assigned tasks. At the same time, successful efficiency measures have been eliminated. Gone are the text groups and battery-powered blowers, which simplified the work. All communications must now go through a central nexus.
Campuses and workplaces across the country have seen similar shifts in recent years, which transform traditional workers into puzzle pieces in a gig economy model. Within this model, workers are made to robotically execute task lists issued by a central source, often computerized. Interpersonal relationships and interaction are sacrificed for a work force that is made interchangeable, and therefore less costly. These managerial moves, whatever their intent, make humanity into a workplace liability for building service workers. Elimination of the early day shift weakens their relationships with faculty and staff who may have advocated for them in the future. Cumulatively, these changes dehumanize the people keeping us safe, and open the door to replacing them with even more vulnerable, more isolated, and lower-paid contracted laborers.