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AFSCME custodians in Madison continue their fight for higher wages and better staffing

By Caelyn Dallman

Madison, WI – On June 26, custodial workers for the Madison Metropolitan School District, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (ASCFME) Local 60, rallied together at the Board of Education meeting to demand a $5 per hour raise that was given to almost all other hourly employees in the district. Since last October they have been raising their voices demanding the school board realize just how much they do for the district.

“We have called the board, sent letters, we have done rallies like this one at board meetings; we feel like we are doing something then we keep getting shut down. The morale for our unit is getting bad because we don’t feel like they value our positions as custodial even though we are the ones that make sure the buildings are safe to go into and are ready for use anytime of the year,” said Norma Vela, a custodian from West High and the secretary of AFSCME Local 60.

Vela continued, “If there was an emergency in our building, we are the ones that must come and clean it up. If there is a break in, we are expected to go and investigate what happened, not security, because we are the ones that maintain and secure the buildings.”

Bryan Lynaugh, another custodial worker in attendance, recounted that one winter, around 6 p.m., the power went out at his school. One custodial worker had to stay until nearly 2 a.m. when Lynaugh came in to relieve him. The power didn’t come back on till about 8 a.m., leaving Lynaugh to wait all that time in a building with no heat. The custodial department is the only department that, if any weather-related event closes schools, are still required to attend work.

When COVID shut everything down, the custodians were there every day making sure the buildings were sanitized so that kids could continue learning in a clean and safe environment. They were the ones cleaning up the COVID clinics, the nurse’s office, and decontaminating and sanitizing rooms after someone got COVID. When raises were being given out to the employees considered the “frontline” of COVID, they were passed over.

Custodians and trade workers – employees with a particular skill set, like electricians, carpentry, plumbing, or painting – have had to continuously work overtime to accommodate the massive staff shortages. With about a million dollars made in overtime this year, the district saw the highest year of custodial overtime to date. Not only are they having to pull staff from other schools to help get the work done, but they are struggling to attract new hires that would help alleviate the immense workload that they are expected to complete every day.

Another reason the gaps are not being filled is that the hiring process is too long for any applicants to get hired. They would conduct interviews and then expect applicants to wait three months to even offer the positions. By that time most would have already accepted jobs elsewhere, leaving the district back at square one.

Custodians work themselves to the bone to try and complete their work, resulting in a high number of burn outs, injuries and workers comp claims. One worker in attendance, Tina Mourna, said she developed carpal tunnel from her work. Another custodian in attendance said that one summer she consistently worked 12-hour days, resulting in her getting so burnt out that she got physically sick.

“The bottom line is students cannot learn without the lights working, cannot learn if the room is not properly sanitized or clean, they cannot learn if the school lacks safety or prevented routine maintenance, and they cannot learn and focus if there is no heat in the building,” said Travis Thomas, treasurer of AFSCME Local 65.

Christina Morna, a building custodian 2 at East High School and a substitute teacher in the Monona School District, remarked during the meeting on how she has had to work two jobs to afford to support herself and her two sons. “There are days where I work 16 hours: eight hours subbing and eight hours as a custodian. Before I didn’t have to do that. We put in so many hours for the kids because we want to make sure that the classroom that they go to is conducive to learning,” Morna said. “I have got two boys to support, as a single mom, and all of a sudden, I have to get a second job just to support my boys.”

“The increase is an investment in us and will give MMSD the ability to hire quality employees who are here for the long haul, for a career. People who care about our kids, our staff and our community. Most importantly, though, it will show our current employees that we are valued, not to mention getting back to a place where in these economic times we can fully support our own families,” said Rob Larson, president of AFSCME Local 60. “Not just with monetary values but getting back to the one thing that you can never get more of, time. Time with our families, time with our own children. Show us that we are valued, let’s get this done tonight and start moving forward to a better tomorrow.”

After further comments and deliberation, the board ultimately decided on a $3.20 per hour raise that went into effect on July 1 and will extend until June 30 of 2024. While this was not the raise the AFSCME Local 60 leaders and rank and file were demanding, it does make it so that no custodial workers are making less than $20 per hour.

If the district wants to continue having quality employees putting out quality work, they need to pay them a quality wage, and though this increase is a step in the right direction, there is still plenty of work that could be done to better support these extremely vital employees of the district. The community can show their support for the custodians and trades by calling or sending letters to the Madison Metropolitan School District board.

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