Changes in Housekeeping Raise Communication Issues Within Department

Amid the climate of economic uncertainty, the Pomona College community has begun to reexamine the position of staff on campus. Student groups and faculty committees have voiced concerns over the treatment and representation of staff at the college, while the administration is in the process of adjusting to a smaller workforce.The first major change is the number of total housekeeping staff. According to Brenda Rushforth, Pomona Assistant Vice President of Human Resources, there are currently five vacant full-time housekeeper positions, two of which were vacated as part of the voluntary early retirement program offered last summer. Five other housekeepers participated in the voluntary early retirement program during the summer, but were replaced by new hires taken from the pool of employees working in the college’s on-call program. There was also one on-call worker who took a full-time position at the college, but then left, and two more on-call workers who were not offered full-time positions at the college, despite being active members of the workforce. Finally, there were two other on-call housekeepers who were temporary staff, and had not worked at the college for any significant number of hours.According to 2005-06 data from a group of 19 comparable liberal arts colleges, Pomona had the second highest level of housekeeping and custodial staff at about 4.2 staff per 10,000 square feet of space, compared to the average staffing level 3.0 staff per 10,000 square feet across this set of institutions.“[The data] gives us confidence that a reduced level of staffing can, if deployed properly, provide safe and effective housekeeping services on our campus,” Pomona Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson said in an e-mail to The Student Life.To address the reductions in housekeeping staff, the administration proposed a team system plan that would strive to meet the needs of the community while maintaining some of the existing housekeeping structure.“One [goal] was to create a more equitable workload with standard functions that staff performed on a daily basis,” said Pomona Director of Facilities and Campus Services Bob Robinson. “The secondary goal was to maintain the community feel…meaning we didn’t want to take all the housekeepers and shake them all up and assign them different areas because they made relationships and have working chemistry with particular faculty and staff in their building. So we wanted to maintain those friendships.”In this new plan, housekeeping staff would be grouped together in teams of three housekeepers, who would be responsible for generally three buildings. For the first several hours of their shift, each housekeeper would perform a series of standard tasks in their primary (individually assigned) buildings. After completing these initial tasks in the morning, the group would come together as a team to accomplish the cleaning goals for the three buildings in the group throughout the day. A set-up crew would also be created to set up campus events and assignments separate from those in residence dorms and buildings.This is in contrast to the older system in which housekeepers were each assigned one primary building to maintain during their entire work shift. There were concerns about inequitable workloads that this system created due to the large variations in the square footage and cleaning requirements from building to building. Also, the lack of a set-up crew reduced efficiency, as housekeepers were sometimes called away from their areas to set up campus events, leaving their building unattended.With the new system, an attempt has been made to standardize work distribution by considering not only square footage, but also the frequency of the tasks performed. A color-coded chart has been provided to workers to indicate what work needs to be done on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.“So it’s not that their workload has increased—it hasn’t,” Robinson said. “It’s been a combination of square footage and frequency.”The new teams system is not yet a campus-wide program, but has been implemented on a rolling basis. All residential hall areas are now under the new system, and according to Sisson, the overall feedback from supervisors and housekeeping staff has been positive.Kristen McCoy, the lead building attendant of residential halls, said the transition for the residential housekeeping crew has been difficult, but they have been handling it well.“I think that there are some kinks to be worked out, and I have to praise my team—they’ve jumped in with both feet and taken a good attitude and are doing the best they can,” McCoy said.A residential housekeeper, who asked to remain anonymous, said the change to a teams system has been hard.“At the beginning, the first couple weeks, it was very hard. It was for me, very frustrating,” the housekeeper said. “I was used to working alone and it was so nice, honestly. Personally, I thought it was too much, and second, to work with a team, sometimes it’s hard to get along with the others.”Another housekeeping employee who asked to remain anonymous suggested that the workload is harder when workers are sick.“We get the same assignments, even if two [take the day] off,” the employee said. “If one calls off, the other two, they have to clean up all of the common areas. If there are two, that one person is only going to be [doing basic clean up]. They are not going to be able to clean all of the common areas, so then one person [still] has to cover all the areas.”Housekeepers have mixed reactions about the communication between administration, supervisors, and housekeeping staff regarding the new system.One housekeeper said that the supervisors and administration have been very receptive to feedback.“I talked to some of them, especially with Bob Robinson, and he asked me ‘how do I feel?,’” the housekeeper said. “And so that made me feel very comfortable. It’s like okay, you are concerned about how do I feel now as a team, and I told him honestly what had happened to me. And he [said] that he and everyone are accepting, or they are listening for suggestions.”Another employee, however, felt that it was difficult to receive responses from the administration.“We have been talking to the leads, and we don’t hear any more feedback,” the housekeeper said. “Maybe the best way to help us is to make a meeting with Bob, Margie, HR, and all the co-workers.”At this time, only one academic area—consisting of Carnegie, Thatcher, and the Cottages—is currently employing the new system, though another is set to transition soon.“Because [residential and academic housekeeping] are two different types of cleaning, we tried to roll them out in two different areas,” Robinson said. “And the academic area is the tougher one, which is surprising.”In the academic buildings, there has been some concern among housekeeping staff about the workload brought on by the new system.One employee, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that a number of workers feel the new system has put them under a lot of stress.“A lot of people are not happy with it because they feel it’s—which it is—overload,” the employee said. “They get tired; they don’t get everything accomplished like they’re supposed to. So it’s kind of cutting corners.”The employee also questioned the ability of housekeepers to accomplish their required tasks in their primary assignment.“In the mornings, you’re in your area for so long, and after that you better help out your group,” the employee said. “So you can only do so much of your area, you can’t finish it all.”Robinson acknowledges difficulties in transitioning between systems. He said the administration is in the process of addressing them, making needed changes based on feedback.“It creates a hardship because we’re in the middle of two systems…but we’re trying to keep the groups in place so we can properly evaluate what’s going on,” Robinson said.Robinson said that the reduction in staff is one particular difficulty in having two systems simultaneously in use.“Sometimes we have staff issues—not problems, just not enough staff by doing this double system,” Robinson said. “But we feel it’s important to kind of get it right.”Robinson said that a reduction of staff has sometimes led to a decreased level of service.“Sometimes we don’t get to provide the level of cleaning we’ve developed in our standards. Sometimes we use overtime. So there’s a number of tools at our disposal,” he said.The employee also suggested that there may simply not be enough workers to complete the required tasks.“We used to have 50-some, and now it’s down to 40-some. And the [number of] buildings still keep going up and up,” the employee said. “So there’s more buildings going up, so what’s going to happen when those buildings go up? Are they gonna get more people, or are they going to do the same thing that they’re doing now, stretching us out?”Another related issue that has also caused controversy is the removal of the on-call system in the housekeeping structure.Previously, on-call workers were called in to temporarily fill in during workers’ absences. However, a number of on-call employees were called back to Pomona on a regular basis.“The previous practice in housekeeping was apparently to replace any worker who called in sick, took vacation, or was out on medical leave with an ‘on-call’ worker instead of adjusting work assignments,” Sisson said in an e-mail to The Student Life. “It appears based on the number of hours worked…these workers worked very close to full-time hours.”According to Sisson, a review of payroll data for Pomona’s nine on-call workers between July 2008 and July 2009 revealed that, with one exception, all of them took on a near full-time workload.The Pomona College Staff Handbook has a policy where an on-call worker is generally not supposed to work more than 1000 hours in an anniversary year, although it does not guarantee that someone would have a status change to regular status at that time. Due to the economic situation, however, Robinson said the on-call system was no longer an option. The teams system has been designed to address the possibility of workers’ absenteeism.“Where the compensation comes in the change in staff is two-fold,” Robinson said. “One, we have that set up crew, the other thing is the relief that three people form a group.”According to the employee, some workers want the on-call system back.“We keep telling them, get the on-calls,” the employee said. “And what they’re doing is they’re cutting back—cutting back on people, cutting back on the budget. They keep saying there’s no money.”Although changes in housekeeping staff have only been in effect this year, they raise larger concerns over the representation of staff in the decision process. One such issue is that staff often do not feel comfortable speaking out.“The majority of most of them are afraid to speak out. They feel that they’ll come back at them, or get more angry at them. That’s why they haven’t really said anything,” the employee said.According to the Workers’ Support Committee (WSC), there has been a long history of intimidation, exploitation, and retaliation against employees when they have raised issues or complaints. WSC members Nick Gerber PO ’10 and Katie Duberg PO ’10 said there is also a certain disillusionment among staff about what changes the administration has historically been able to implement. This, they say, has led to their reticence to speak out now.“They’re perfectly capable,” Gerber said. “They just don’t have faith in the system and they don’t have power to get things done.”McCoy, a nine-year employee of the college, said she has heard allegations of intimidation, but was not personally aware of any cases.“Intimidation and retaliation are not really allowed,” McCoy said. “Sometimes I think it’s just a communication that was missed.”McCoy blamed language barriers for occasional miscommunications she has had with some workers. She does not speak Spanish, while some employees have difficulty expressing their concerns in English. However, she said it has not been a significant problem, as building attendants were willing to translate and the former head housekeeping supervisor handled private matters.Both Sisson and Robinson acknowledge a history of anecdotes from workers who claim to have been intimidated or retaliated against. However, they have also tried to take a role in changing staff perceptions of bureaucracy that have been in place for many years.“I guess I’m fighting a history here,” Robinson said. “You hear different stories…but what we’ve tried to create on all levels is an open, transparent environment where the staff feel comfortable talking to their supervisors. And if they don’t feel comfortable talking to their supervisors, they can talk to that person’s supervisor. Is there a reticence to actually believe that on our part? I imagine there is, and the only thing I say to staff, is that I understand you might be reticent or a little hesitant about that, but I understand that it’s going to take time, and that I also understand that our actions have to speak louder than our words.”History professor Helena Wall, who has talked to a number of housekeepers, has also expressed concern about staff not having a mechanism to voice their concerns.“I have some concerns about this current plan and the changes and the way it has been implemented, but I actually have a bigger concern—its long term,” Wall said. “It’s about there being no real mechanism or structure for staff in general, but in this case the housekeepers, to be represented, or to be able to express their views in a way that protects their confidentiality.”Wall said that although students and faculty are protected in a number of ways, housekeeping, grounds, and dining hall staff are often left vulnerable.“I think there is no question that they are the most vulnerable, and they always are,” Wall said. “But of course these are bad times, this is not a good time to get in the face of your superior and risk your job.”Wall suggested that the executive committee appoint a committee of a couple of faculty and a couple of staff to talk to the housekeepers-one-on-one, and in confidence.“What I find frustrating is that it’s hard to get information,” Wall said. “Staff council can’t even do surveys of the staff on particular things. How are we supposed to hear from the housekeepers, and how are the housekeepers supposed to feel comfortable expressing their concerns if they have them?”Robinson said he communicates regularly with his staff and supervisors.“I’m out and about,” Robinson said. “And I talk to housekeepers, I talk to groundsmen, and I talk to our maintenance guys. Every day. And I think they understand where I’m coming from, but again [they’re] always a little hesitant, so [they] have to see what [I’m] all about.”Sisson said she has heard about intimidation tactics from students, but nothing tangible that she and her administration can directly address.“One of the frustrations among my staff is that we hear, through the Workers’ Support Committee, is that people feel intimidated or they feel like if they say anything they’ll be retaliated against, but we’re not given any specifics,” Sisson said. “I’m trying to be as open as I can. I’m trying to be as available as I can be to let people know they should feel free to even walk through the door here. But I can’t make people come to me.”Wall said that she feels the “open door policy,” as it has been called, is not adequate to address workers’ concerns.“A lot of this stuff is subtle, some of it is personal, and maybe it is just a few isolated cases,” Wall said. “What I would want more than anything else as I said is a mechanism, and a way to get more comprehensive information, because I don’t think that an administrator simply saying that they can talk to us if they have a problem—I don’t think that’s good enough.”One housekeeping employee has voiced similar sentiments and a frustration with the rigidity of the system.“What good is the open door policy if you always have to go through the chain of command?” the employee said.Sisson feels improvement has been made with the new additions to administration but acknowledges perceptions may be slower to change.“I think we’ve made some strides, but also again, when people who have lived and worked in environment for a long time and they’re used to that kind of environment it’s sometimes hard to see the changes that are there,” Sisson said.One way the administration is addressing the issue of the hesitance of employees to speak out about their concerns is by openly encouraging direct feedback from the staff.“I think that’s how a good, healthy workplace works—that is the people who are doing the work are the most likely to know how to do it better …you want to get feedback from them,” Sisson said.At the suggestions of two staff workers, Robinson is currently developing a staff council to create a space where grounds, housekeeping, maintenance, and dining hall workers can feel more comfortable in expressing their concerns. Robinson hopes to establish this council and have its first meeting as early as January.“Essentially, we’re going to have staff from housekeeping, dining, grounds, maintenance…come together and sit down and talk about issues that affect the work force on a daily basis,” Robinson said.Robinson hopes the council meeting will serve as a medium to discuss workloads, issues within the residence and academic buildings, and efficiencies within the department. He sees it being an opportunity to test out ideas or roll out thoughts and get their feedback on programs. He also hopes the council will be a medium to provide information about opportunities and benefits available to them as staff that he feels are not utilized enough“What we’re looking at is a broad range of opportunity to kind of enhance the quality of life of our staff,” Robinson said of the council. “I know it’s going to be difficult, it’s a pretty ambitious program in my mind.”For workers who have expressed concerns to Workers’ Support Committee in confidentiality, Sisson has asked the committee to take certain steps if a safety concern or other issue has come to their attention. First, if it is a safety concern, the worker should let either she, Robinson, or Pomona Assistant Director of Campus Services Margie McKenna know about the situation. She said workers do not necessarily need to come forward—though that would be preferable—and that if they are comfortable, they can just write it down, even in Spanish. This way it can be directly addressed by the administration. If the issue does not concern safety—such as issues of too much work, a team member, or even a student or staff member in their building—then Workers’ Support Committee should ask the worker to talk to one of the administration. If they do not feel comfortable with that, then a member of Workers’ Support Committee should accompany them so that the administration can hear about the situation directly.Sisson’s request to the Workers’ Support Committee is in response to frustrations the administration had in dealing with some of their concerns that have been vague for confidentiality reasons. While Sisson said she would like to address these concerns, she feels powerless without adequate knowledge.“One of the problems with the dialogue that’s going on now is that myself, and Bob Robinson, and Margie McKenna are hearing from students who are speaking on behalf of workers but we’re not hearing directly from the workers,” Sisson said. “So whether it’s a fear of intimidation or whether a worker has said something to a student asking for confidentiality, the worker is never identified and the specific situation is never identified. So you can imagine if you don’t have the facts of the situation it’s very hard to address it.”In the past two weeks, there has also been a vacancy in housekeeping management. Head housekeeping supervisor Sandra Seisdedos has terminated her employment with the college after about nine years. It is not clear whether she quit or was asked to leave, and Sisson declined to comment.Some housekeeping employees expressed their relief about the termination of her employment.“[I am] glad she left, because she was a major problem the housekeeping department got,” one employee said. “In the past it was a lot of favoritism from her, retaliation from her and favoritism from her toward other co-workers.”Another employee expressed similar sentiments.“A lot of them are hoping that things do get better,” the employee said. “To be honest, [Seisdedos] never gave me a hard time. She’s always been okay with me, but with other people, she’s given them a real hard time.”Sisson hopes that the recent changes in administration will improve the currently held perceptions some employees may have about their supervisors and the administration. She has worked at the college for one year, while Robinson has been employed for seven months.“I really hope that we can get past the history, both with the workers and with others, and people will at least give myself—I’ve been here a year, Bob has been here seven months, Margie has been here two years, we no longer have a housekeeping supervisor,” Sisson said. “Give these new people a chance. If we blow it, then call us on it. But give us a chance. As far as I’m seeing, we haven’t even been given a chance.”

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