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The unseen warriors: Custodians battle COVID-19 obstacles

While residence hall custodians at Miami University love to see students back on campus, both COVID-19 and online learning have made their daily lives harder. 

One drawback of having more students on campus is the greater possibility of contracting COVID-19. However, Lisa Philbeck, a custodian in Flower Hall, feels better with the vaccine rollout underway and the available resources provided by the university. 

“With the vaccinations out now, I’m not too worried about it,” Philbeck said. “And with Miami, as good as they are, giving us weekly tests to let us know whether we are positive or negative is great, because we are getting our results within 15 minutes.”

Because Philbeck lives with her elderly mother, this quick turnaround of results relieves some of the stress that comes with the uncertainty.

Philbeck also appreciates the updates the university sends out on the Miami bulletin board because it informs her about where she needs to be more cautious.

“[It provides] updates about which areas are more problematic,” Phillbeck said. “And, I think they have done a tremendous job considering what I’ve heard other places had to deal with.”

Some custodians at Miami, like Valinda Proffitt in Scott Hall, already had COVID-19, so the anxiety that came with working during the pandemic was somewhat lifted from her shoulders.

“I was deathly sick last year,” Proffitt said. “So, I’m not afraid of it. [However, I wear] a mask when I’m around other people, gloves, sanitize and disinfect.”

In addition to the higher risk of contracting COVID-19, their daily duties are often modified as more students take online classes in their dorms.

One custodian, who preferred to remain anonymous, said completing certain duties has become more challenging since they need to be done without disturbing students.

“[The students] are in the bathrooms more often, so it is harder to clean there,” she said. “It is harder to do vacuuming because I don’t want to bother them. You never know if they are in classes.”

Along with conflicting schedules, students spending an abundant amount of time in their dorm is creating excess trash.

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One custodian said with the dining halls now doing carry out, more trash is building up. Before the pandemic, students ate in a dining hall with plates and silverware, and returned their trays once they were finished eating. Students now have the option to take their food back to their residence hall because boxed containers have replaced dishes. This multiplies the amount of trash per person by a couple of meals per day. 

To help her and her coworkers out, she suggested students throw away their garbage in their own trash can and take it down to the trash room periodically.

“All the extra food boxes have been a challenge, trying to keep up with that,” she said. “So, it would help if the [students] could just take the trash out a little more often.”

While the day-to-day struggles custodians face at work can be exhausting, Miami has lifted some of their financial anxiety.

When students were sent home last spring, Miami gave custodians two options: They could either file for unemployment and stay home for four-to-six weeks or continue working. 

One custodian expressed her gratitude for the option to return home.

“We were off four-to-six weeks last March and April, and still [got] paid,” she said.

However, Philbeck explained her decision to stay at the halls and continue working.

“I was very grateful to have [Miami] keep me employed and not lay me off when it all was first starting,” Philbeck said. “A lot of people got offered the option to either work or take six weeks off unemployment, but it took so long for them to get the unemployment [payment]. That would put me and my home life way behind.”

Now with school back in session, the university is giving the opportunity for people to work overtime. With these overtime hours, custodians can either take the extra income or take the equivalent comp time. 

“I think it’s great,” Philbeck said. “With my mom not in good health, I am able to take off [work] to take her to the doctors without having to use sick time. I can use my comp time and save that sick time in case something major happens to me.”

The demands of custodians have changed quite a bit during this pandemic from juggling schedule conflicts to dealing with financial concerns. Despite all these hardships, the custodians love interacting with students, and for some, it is the highlight of their day.

“I enjoy the students that stop me in the hall and talk to me,” Proffitt said. “[And] those who thank me for doing what I’m doing.”