More than 70 janitorial staff, students, and faculty rallied on January 27 to protest against the school’s cleaning contractor, Arkatype Contractors, which has allegedly made janitors endure physical pain and take on unusual duties while cleaning the presidential house, called Mathy House. Workers say they are severely understaffed in addition to being overworked.
But the university argues that its current president, Dr. Gregory Washington, has done more than any before to improve conditions for custodial workers–such as ordering his administration to investigate custodial working conditions, improving the school’s contract requirements to address workers’ concerns, and hiring contractors that pay higher wages and offer benefits including paid time off. Through a spokesman, vice president and chief brand officer Paul Allvin, GMU called the allegations “ironic” and implied that Washington, who is Black, may be getting subjected to a racial double standard.
This isn’t the first time staff have issued complaints of poor working conditions against university contractors.
Jaime Contreras, vice president of the 32BJ SEIU union, says that, “Conditions and treatment were always bad,” for custodial workers, who only went public about the alleged working conditions after they had support from SEIU. He and other SEIU members have been working with Mason’s janitors for the past couple of years in their fight to organize. (He notes that SEIU has previously worked with university employees, helping to secure a union contract for Sodexo’s food service workers at George Mason as well.)
Contreras, who heads the Capital Area District, also says that workers are being asked to do things he’s never seen before in any of the places he’s represented — like iron the president’s shirts.
Doris Diaz is one of the university’s custodial staff who feels overwhelmed by the workload. She cleans several floors of three university buildings, as well as three floors at Mathy House.
“Sometimes, I can’t take my break and lunch time because of the heavy workload. The presidential house filed a complaint that we had left a garbage bag and the mop outside; this was due to the accumulated fatigue from the excess of work,” says Diaz. At Mathy House she sweeps, mops, cleans the bathrooms, vacuums, washes clothes and towels, and even irons the clothes.
No such complaint about a garbage bag and mop was ever filed, “either by Dr. Washington or by any staff associated with his office,” according to Allvin.
“The workers are fatigued and just in pain — literally physical pain from all the work that they have to do. The university’s cleaning staff under this contract are severely understaffed. Workers and the faculty and the students are just tired of the abuses by these contractors that GMU keeps bringing in,” says Contreras. “This is physical, back-breaking labor performed often by single mothers already working multiple other jobs and who don’t want to cut corners given their dedication to keeping people safe during the pandemic.”
But the university says it has not received complaints about the working conditions under Arkatype, or any from cleaning staff about the type and amount of work they are asked to do.
“There is no evidence of this happening. At no time have Arkatype employees been required to work outside of the agreed-upon scope of work to keep Mathy House clean. In fact, they are asked to do less for Dr. Washington than for his predecessors,” says Allvin. “We have received no reports of Arkatype employees enduring physical pain while working at Mathy House.”
Allvin noted that a racial double standard may be at play.
“Third-party and media reports of ‘back-breaking’ housekeeping work conditions at Mathy House are utterly without basis and employ disturbing dog-whistle language that seek to cast aspersions on the services that Dr. Washington receives,” says Allvin. “This disturbing and cynical strategy is a familiar narrative to leaders of color, who all too often find themselves subjected to very different standards of conduct by certain special interests.”
When asked specifically about the allegations regarding the cleaning of the presidential house, Allvin said that the university president is required to live in Mathy House, and custodial staff taking care of things like laundry is nothing new.
“Mr. Contreras has no understanding of the work he is attempting to criticize. Laundry has always been part of the housekeeping services offered at Mathy House, and [Washington’s] predecessors all received similar assistance,” says Allvin. “George Mason University’s president is contractually required to live and host official university functions in Mathy House, which is owned by the George Mason University Foundation. It is operated and maintained as a working university building. The university provides housekeeping services to each president as part of each employment contract.
“The university has received no complaints about adverse working conditions from housekeepers at Mathy House.”
Arkatype has not responded to request for comment.
Past issues with George Mason University’s previous contractor LT Services include bounced and late paychecks, which led custodians to file unfair labor practice claims with the National Labor Relations Board. LT Services settled the charges. Other issues with LT Services consisted of a lack of PPE, a demanding workload, and allegations that managers sabotaged their work areas. Eugenio Guidel said that his manager would throw powder in a clean area, then claim Guidel did not clean it at all.
“During my 20 years here, I have never been treated like this,” Guidel says.
Mason commissioned an audit of LT Services after these accusations, eventually selecting Arkatype as its vendor in August.
“The university got rid of this contractor and brought in Arkatype … who is no different than the previous one,” Contreras says. He also said that 32BJ SEIU provided Mason with a list of “responsible contractors,” which they ended up not choosing from.
The school disputes the characterization of Arkatype being “no different than” previous contractors. “This is false,” says Allvin. “Unlike its predecessor, Arkatype pays its employees livable wages that start at $15.25 to $16 per hour, and it offers benefits that include paid time off. Its electronic payroll systems, by contractual requirement, ensure that employees are paid accurately and on time. And all of its employees pass required federal employment eligibility checks.”
Contreras said that SEIU’s involvement didn’t just begin with this new contractor, but “we reached out and discussed staff working conditions and federal labor charges numerous times over the past two years. If a contractor refuses to improve conditions it leaves the union no choice but to address the issue with the entity who hires the contractor and has control over that contract, in this case GMU, in other cases the property owner or airport authority, etc.”
GMU disputes this allegation, too. “SEIU does not represent these workers and has no authority to speak for them. Nonetheless, Dr. Washington has met personally with SEIU representatives including Mr. Contreras, and the selection of Arkatype is proof that he listened and responded,” says Allvin. “All working conditions that SEIU advocated for are being met in the new contractual requirements.”
Petitions and GoFundMe pages have been created on behalf of Mason’s custodial staff over the past couple of years as a result of the treatment they’ve allegedly faced under contractors. After some custodians were told just before the holidays that they would not be rehired at the beginning of the year when Mason brought in Arkatype, one fundraiser raised over $28,000 for these laid-off employees. The fund’s organizer, Bethany Letiecq, who is a Mason professor and co-founder of the GMU Coalition for Worker Rights, said that this money has been distributed to 50 workers as of February 1.
Contreras explained that while some places, like Montgomery County in Maryland or DC, have a requirement for certain contractors to retain service workers at their sites for a trial work period, Virginia does not, so Arkatype and other contractors are able to do what they want in regard to employing current site workers.
Often, the contractor is held liable for penalties or providing restitution to workers in instances of complaints, not the party — in this instance the university — which hires them, attorney Matt Handley told NBC Washington regarding wage theft in August.
Regardless of legal liability, Contreras says that the university is still responsible for hiring the contractor, and should take action — and that as a higher education institution, the message that Mason sends to the community is important, saying, “What kind of lesson are they teaching to the students in this facility, that this is the way that we treat the people who maintain your dorms and your buildings?”
The battle between service workers and contractor is not unique to Mason. The university is not the only higher education institution with claims against its contractors — construction contractors at both Georgetown University and Virginia Commonwealth University were the subject of complaints of wage theft last year. Contreras also noted that there’s a pattern of non-unionized custodians at other facilities, like stadiums and airports, being treated poorly.
“The reality is, the workers who are not represented by a labor union, are going to be treated and be paid a certain — you know, low wages, no sick days, no health care,” he explains. “And they have, basically, at-will employees who are going to be asked to do all these things that workers at the university, at GMU, are being asked to do.”
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