‘We try to do the best we can;’ Facilities custodians faced with impossible workloads
A shortage of employees combined with unreceptive management has made life difficult for Facilities maintenance staff.
On a typical morning, the alarm clock blares at 3:30 a.m., and Brandeis Facilities employees begin to get ready for the day long before the sun even peeks over the horizon. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, they pull their light blue “Brandeis Facilities” t-shirts over their heads and begin their commute to campus, preparing for another day of physically and mentally draining work.
Maintenance employees work from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. and are allowed one half-hour lunch break from 11:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., as well as the option to take two 15-minute breaks throughout the day. This year, however, many facilities employees have been opting to keep working through their breaks, anxious that they won’t have enough time to finish their work by the end of the day.
The workload feels different this year than in previous years because although there have been multiple employees who have left over the last few years, the University has not yet hired replacements. Instead, they have been divvying up the extra workload to the rest of the maintenance department. And with over 1,000 members of the class of 2026 alone, there are more people making use of the dorms and the public spaces on campus than ever before — and thus even more people to clean up after.
The employees are exhausted and unsure of what to do next, leading a few members of the Facilities department to approach the Justice and plead for help. The Justice interviewed six employees from the department about their situation, all of whom wished to remain anonymous. “Somebody has to listen to us because we’ve gone to many places and nobody can help us … we don’t know where to go now, but somebody has to listen,” the workers who approached the Justice said.
A common sentiment among many of the staff was the abnormality of the situation. The employees who spoke to the Justice have been working at the University for a wide range of years, but most have been at Brandeis for well over a decade, some even over two decades. And yet all six of the workers stated that the situation the custodians are in right now is unprecedented. “I’ve worked here for almost 26 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” one of the interviewees remarked.
The department has been losing employees for a number of years due to resignations, retirements, and the like; however, they have yet to be replaced. For example, the custodians whose job was cleaning Ziv and Ridgewood Quads left around three or four years ago. Rather than hiring more people to take over those assignments, Facilities assigned one person to clean all seven buildings in both quads, according to the interviewees. The maintenance staff told the Justice that when they asked their superiors why replacements had yet to be hired, the reason they were given was that there is not enough room in the budget to hire any new employees.
One employee explained that last year, they cleaned all of the bathrooms in one large building. The process of deep cleaning each bathroom on every floor would take just about the entirety of the eight-hour workday, with enough time to take their allotted breaks. This year, however, this employee has the same building to clean as well as an additional four academic buildings around campus — and they are still expected to finish their work within the same eight-hour timeframe. With this workload, the employees said they have about half an hour to clean each bathroom: just 30 minutes to scrub down each of the toilets, sinks, showers, and mirrors; sweep and mop; replace the toilet paper and paper towels; take out the trash; and wipe down all surfaces. “I do the best I can in my eight hours,” one of the workers said, but it’s not nearly enough time.
It was evident that the custodians’ main concern is not about their lack of availability to take breaks, their physical exhaustion at the end of the day, or the mistreatment from their boss — their main concern is how the unrealistic expectations of what they can accomplish in a day will affect the students. With the number of assignments they are responsible for, the custodians have extremely limited time for each allotted building and are unable to be as thorough as they would like to be. “If we continue this way, we have to leave our buildings unattended for a few hours of the day. Imagine if we don’t clean one day, how it is going to be at the end of the day for the kids. After they come back to rest from classes at the end of the day, tired, and the building’s disgusting,” they said.
The managers seem to be more concerned with quantity over quality — which is not a value shared by the employees — and in turn, the custodians are being forced to do less than adequate work. “They don’t care if we have to leave some things without being done, some bathrooms without being cleaned. The administration doesn't care.” As parents themselves, they are disappointed at the idea that their bosses are not prioritizing the students’ needs, especially considering the large amount of money students pay to live in the dorms. “Our kids are in university too. I wouldn't be happy if my daughter at university is being treated like this. I don't think it’s fair for the students,” one worker said.
In previous years, workers were assigned to either dorms or academic buildings. Now, many are assigned to both. The custodians have been questioning why they are being asked to spend such a large bulk of their time cleaning offices or buildings that are only used for a few hours a day, five days a week, instead of devoting the necessary amount of time to cleaning the dorms that students inhabit 24/7. The interviewees explained that often, one of their assignments is to clean the glass on academic buildings, both windows and doors. They expressed their frustration with being given these seemingly unnecessary tasks when, in the back of their minds, they know that in the dorm bathrooms there is trash that still needs to be taken out or showers that still need to be cleaned.
Though the quantity of work is the most significant source of these issues, there are also other factors at play that are making it difficult for the employees to do their jobs. There seems to be no strategy regarding who is assigned to which building around campus, and each employee is given randomly selected buildings across campus, often none of them geographically close to one another. This means that employees end up with even less time to do their actual work; much of their time is eaten up by running between buildings from one side of campus to another. To make matters worse, employees are not provided with transportation to and from their varying buildings. The staff explained that they often find themselves hauling cleaning supplies across campus — some of the workers shared that they have been lugging their vacuums from one building to another throughout the day. For now, the staff has put up with the lack of transportation, but they expressed anxiety about what will happen come wintertime, when temperatures drop and there may be snow and sleet. When they expressed this concern to their manager, she reportedly replied, “If I can walk, you can walk.”
Lori Kabel, director of facilities, is at the root of these issues, according to the employees. They have attempted to express their concerns to her on many occasions, but to no avail. The employees emphasized that Kabel has been unreceptive to the staff’s anxieties and complaints and has even been unwilling to meet with the concerned workers. The interviewees recounted a time when one employee had a meeting scheduled with Kabel to talk through the staff’s issues with the workload. The employee brought along a translator to assist with the language barrier, but when they walked into Kabel’s office, one of the employees explained that Kabel immediately said, “I didn’t know you were going to bring someone else,” promptly canceled the meeting, and refused to reschedule. “I think that is unprofessional and unfair to everyone,” remarked one of the interviewees.
Employees also shared an occasion when they voiced their concerns to Kabel, who then allegedly responded, “I don’t care.” Workers have expressed to Kabel their distress about how students will be the ones who are directly impacted by the unrealistic expectations for the workers, as they will end up living in unclean environments. According to an employee, Kabel said that even if students complained about the cleanliness of shared spaces in the dorms, she had no plans to budge.
The Justice reached out to Kabel for comment on the issue. Julie Jette, assistant vice president of communications, responded on Kabel’s behalf on Nov. 7, writing that Kabel “is unavailable at the moment,” and that the following paragraph can be attributed to Kabel:
“Brandeis deeply appreciates the hard work of our custodians, who provide a clean and pleasant environment for their fellow staff and for our students and faculty. We currently have 65X custodians on staff and we are in the process of hiring four more, hopefully within the month - as you know, all industries are facing staffing challenges at the moment. We monitor workloads and areas assigned to each custodial staff member, and we rebalance these areas when needs change and when staffing changes to ensure fairness to our staff while maintaining a clean environment.”
Regardless of how difficult their jobs have been recently, the custodians have continued to work to the best of their ability. “We never refuse to do the work. We work hard every single day, we are happy to work hard,” one of the interviewees said. They show up to work despite how exhausted and stressed they are at the end of the day. “When we get home, we don’t even want to talk with our family because we’re so tired … it’s very stressful for us,” one staff member explained. They elaborated that often they can’t even relax when they get home at the end of the day because they are thinking about a bathroom they might have left slightly dirty or a trash can they had not been able to empty.
A recurring theme throughout the conversations was the notion that the employees would never consider refusing to work even when it feels impossible to add any more tasks to their already packed workloads. They consistently give their all and are happy to help whenever their work is needed — but they feel as if this dedication is taken for granted. “We try to do the best we can, but it’s very hard for us,” one of the workers said. “They don’t value or appreciate our hard work. They don’t listen to how we feel about it,” they added about how their managers are handling the situation. The workers stated that at the end of the day, “all we want is to stay in our buildings with the same amount of work we had last year … We don't want to leave our buildings without [cleaning]. We hope they can understand that.” But until that understanding happens, Brandeis custodians will continue to face this exhausting cycle of overwork and ill-treatment.