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Custodial staff brave pandemic conditions to support families, welcome students back on campus

Instead of transitioning to working from home as many USF employees did at the start of the pandemic, USF custodial staff had to step up their cleaning procedures across campus while keeping themselves and their families protected from COVID-19. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/UNSPLASH/Anton

After a long day at work cleaning Juniper-Poplar Hall, Jenny Lanza’s priorities after arriving home are to shower and change her clothes before coming into contact with her family, especially her 70-year-old mother. 

Even with the fear of exposing them to COVID-19 in the back of her mind, she has no option but to continue working to support herself and her family.

“It was stressful … I got a little nervous because I was afraid my children or mother, who is already old, would get the virus,” Lanza said. “They say young people are still at risk but I was more worried about my mother.”

When she reflected on how she would handle the situation of working and being exposed to COVID-19, she decided to work out a way to continue her job duties and reduce the risk of infecting her family. 

“We do have contact with a lot of students so I started wondering ‘How am I going to [deal] with my job?’” Lanza said. “But I said ‘OK, I have to move forward. I have a job and I will figure out how to take care of my mother.’”

Similar to Lanza’s case, working from home was not an option for other Housing and Residential Education custodial employees as the university had to step up its cleaning procedures around campus. Even though the number of students in the dorms was reduced in summer and fall, all of the employees in the custodial services department continued working 40 hours a week. 

Roberto Jimenez, custodial manager, said at the beginning of the outbreak his staff was worried about the health risks that the pandemic posed. To give them some “peace of mind,” the housing department started buying personal protective equipment (PPE) in large quantities.   

“I think to an extent, everybody was somewhat scared of this virus,” Jimenez said. “But with the department, we knew that we had to come back with the plan and make sure and reassure the staff that we were going to provide them with the tools not only to help sanitize and disinfect surfaces, but also for them to protect themselves.”

Employees were given PPE including suits that covered their clothes for when they were cleaning inside each residence hall as well as mandatory guidelines such as keeping physical distance between each other and using gloves, face masks and goggles when working.

During their training in March 2020, custodial services staff were told to focus on cleaning high touch areas and to disinfect common areas almost every hour. Some housing employees went through special training to work in the isolation dorms designated to house students who tested positive for COVID-19 or those who were exposed to the virus.

Their procedures for the isolation areas include taking new linen sets to each room, carrying frozen meal kits and having a specific disinfecting routine for the isolation spaces. 

“The disinfection process works by spraying the room, spraying the space with a peroxide-based chemical that kills anything that could be in there,” Jimenez said. “Then we have people that come behind, and they wipe everything down, and then they’re out. So that space is clear for entry by a resident. A resident stays there anywhere from two days to two weeks, they move out, and then we go through the process all over again.”

Even with all of the precautions, Lanza felt nervous about heading to work and putting her families at risk because of the potential exposure to the virus. Lanza was concerned for the health of her elderly mother as well as her young children, and so she limited her risk of exposure to the dorms, and took all the necessary precautions to prevent contracting the virus, including not traveling. 

Her routines before the pandemic included visiting friends and going on trips to visit her family in Houston or Miami, and going back to Honduras, her home country. 

[The pandemic] has impacted me because you can’t have relationships with friends or family,” Lanza said. “So, I used to visit them at least once a year but now I haven’t been able to see them for all this time, and that has affected me. It makes me sad because I have family in different states and I can’t be near them.” 

As an immigrant, Yamilka Pages, a custodial services member from Cuba, said she also misses visiting her family. Even if traveling is not something she does often, she wishes she could be with her family now more than ever. 

“It has affected me not being able to visit my family because of how the situation [with the virus] in Cuba is right now,” Pages said. “One would like to help them by going there, but with Cuba’s current situation, I cannot go.” 

Pages tries to speak with her daughter almost every day and has been taking advantage of her time at home to get more rest.

“Thank God I have not felt lonely, I am not the type of person who goes out much,” Pages said. “I like watching TV or Netflix, or sometimes I put on Cuban shows on YouTube.”

Like other custodial staff, she is grateful she could continue working under the new circumstances and said she has not felt a financial impact from the pandemic because her hours have stayed the same. 

Even if the workload does feel heavier and the cleaning routines can get tiring, like many employees, Lanza said she is grateful to still have a job knowing that many people have been laid off or were being furloughed because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

“We do have a little more work, but we have work,” Lanza said. “Sometimes I get stressed out, but at the same time I say ‘I am healthy, I have my family, I have a job.’

“Unfortunately, many people have lost their job, many people have lost relatives. And I tell myself ‘continue going’ because for now I have not had to live those difficult moments that others have gone through.”