‘I’m scared to death’: Custodians worry about safety, working during COVID-19 pandemic

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Photo Credit: Destiny Alexander | Daily Texan Staff

As soon as she arrives for work, Sarah, a UT custodian, freezes. She said she’s afraid to touch the surfaces she has to clean, unsure of who cleaned it before her and whether they had COVID-19. 

When campus closed on March 13, faculty members began to work from home while custodial service employees, considered essential personnel, stayed. 

A little over two months later, 10 custodians tested positive for COVID-19. On July 7, Interim President Jay Hartzell announced a custodian died from complications related to the virus. 

“The death of one of our custodians this week is devastating,” University spokesperson J.B. Bird said in an email. “Coming at a time when the virus remains very active in Travis County, this tragic loss underscores the vigilance required of all of us to promote safety measures, follow them closely and work to protect Texas together.”  

Custodians are cleaning facilities daily to ensure a safe environment for students, faculty and staff, Building Services Supervisor Richard Charbel said.

After working as a custodian for four years, Sarah, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her employment, said though she doesn’t want to quit, she now worries about contracting the virus from her co-workers. 

Sarah said she’s seen symptomatic co-workers continue to work, fearing taking time off without a confirmed diagnosis will result in losing pay. All UT employees are eligible for up to two weeks of paid sick leave “if they are unable to work their scheduled weekly hours either on campus or remotely because they have to self-isolate or self-quarantine,” Veronica Trevino, media manager of Financial and Administrative Services, said in an email.

On April 30, UT shared a work guidance document listing safety procedures for essential campus personnel. Among other regulations, it requires co-workers to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet. 

Over the past three months, Sarah said she and her co-workers have cleaned the same spaces in empty academic buildings every day, which takes up only a quarter of their eight-hour shifts.

“It's so clean, you have people walking around and doing extra stuff like cleaning windows,”  Sarah said. “We’re just coming in and going right back over what we did. We’re only putting ourselves at risk.”

Sarah said employees often group together at work to discuss the emails they receive about the situation.

“We all talk about this,” Sarah said. “That’s what brings us together when we’re not supposed to be together at work.”

Betty Tuch is a building attendant at the Health Transformation Building. Unlike other academic buildings, Tuch said it remains active with employees.

During her shift, Tuch said crying co-workers sometimes approach her and express their fears about contracting the virus. After working in health care facilities during outbreaks of MRSA and the swine flu, Tuch said she’s used to working in high-risk environments. 

“I'll pull my mask down and smile real quick and then put my mask up and tell them, ‘It's going to be dangerous whether you're out there or in here,’” Tuch said. “‘But at least in here, you know that you're going to be safe with the cleaning, and you have a job.’”

Charbel said when scared employees approach him, he refers them to the Occupational Health Program for medical concerns or the Employee Assistance Program for emotional needs. 

Some custodial service employees are looking forward to students’ fall return, Charbel said. Following the recent death, Sarah said she worries the risk is still too high. 

“I love my job, but my job does not love me back,” Sarah said. “I’m scared to death. What has to happen in order for (them) to say, ‘We’re worried about y’all’s welfare?’”