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Banding together: Bowdoin housekeepers share their story

October 4, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Sara Caplan

Things have changed. The housekeeping department isn’t like it used to be. I have to struggle to get out of bed to come to work. I loved coming to work. But now everything is so different. Bowdoin prides itself on being a great community in the public eye, but behind closed doors it’s quite a different story.

To be clear, I am not writing this to hurt anyone. I love my job and the students, and have a good relationship with the staff I have met. I just wish the Bowdoin community could be in our shoes for a day and see what it’s like.

On my first day, I was very open about not knowing how to do things yet. I never got training, and then I get reprimanded. I’m even expected to train others now. My first month at Bowdoin, I was called to the child care center, told to put my hair in a ponytail, start bagging up everything that was made of soft fabric and throw it in a truck. Later they told me it was a lice infestation. This was just the first of many infestations I would later take care of with no official training on pest removal or any equipment suitable to do the job well.

We have to go to Mayflower Apartments, Pine Street and Stowe Inn. We have to use our personal vehicles, or we’re supposed to walk to our buildings and tear our shoulders out carrying things. These are all off campus, miles away, and we’re not reimbursed for gas. If we can’t make it in time, we’re told we’re taking too long and asked why we’re late.

How many housekeepers or even custodians have to walk with their supplies a mile down the road? How many schools call their cleaning staff housekeepers? How many housekeepers have to start work at 5 a.m.? How many housekeepers have to clean sticky, beer-stained floors after parties, or wax and buff floors with large machinery?

When we’re working overtime and big jobs like graduation, newer housekeepers will ask me for guidance. I’m given all this responsibility but management still won’t promote me to “Senior Housekeeper.”

When the events setup crew is swamped, we are also called upon as back ups. We get paid housekeeping wages but are expected to work harder than two job titles combined.

Housekeepers even have to clean President Clayton Rose’s house—and his second house! And you don’t get any more money. In how many companies do you clean the boss’s house?

Parts of this campus have a serious mold problem. It’s in the walls and ventilation systems. This is happening all over the place, but we’re not warned. We have to deal with bedbugs, lice, vomit, blood and asbestos. There are no precautions for us. They don’t care. At Bowdoin there’s no “maximum” level of work. They can just keep going if they want. I’m doing three buildings, and more if someone calls in sick, all in the same eight hours. And the buildings just keep popping up. We’re expected to hear “this is how it’s done,” period—no talking, no input. This is physical work that will break you down and wear out even the most physically fit person, with continual stress on the muscles and repetition of the same movements.

I’ve worked in many places since I was 15. But here I feel so discouraged and disappointed. Is this how Bowdoin wants their employees to feel? This is what I’ve felt like since day one. Do I feel respected? Nope. If we were respected the way we should be, instead of being treated like children, maybe we would have respect for management. We are afraid to smile. If we say or do the wrong thing we could be sent to HR. Management encourages hostility and divisiveness between us. They encourage us to tell on each other, and it’s contagious. They even want us to take pictures if someone hasn’t gotten to clean something.

I feel like I am in lock down. We are constantly being checked on. If we are sitting down we are asked what we are doing, all the time. We are always being watched to see what time we get to the time clock to punch out. A lot of us are upset and frustrated and have no one in management anymore that we can go to, but when you ask people to go to the Bowdoin Labor Alliance meeting they choose not to or are afraid.

So many people are looking for other jobs. If the position of housekeeper at Bowdoin is so desirable, why have there been four vacant positions since last November? We’re so understaffed that we can’t take vacations––they have them blocked off so you can’t take a day off. And the only way we are going to get new employees to join Bowdoin is to increase the starting pay.

It makes me laugh when I meet people and I tell them “I’m a housekeeper at Bowdoin” and they say, “Oh, you must make good money.” My pay shows how much I am respected. We’re supposed to be so grateful for whatever they give us, like the pay raise this summer of a few cents. Now some of us who’ve been here a long time are making the same or just a few cents more than someone who’s been here a lot less time. What they did by giving everybody “raises” was to shut everybody up. To make everyone go away.

Bowdoin can’t see how wrong they are when they say “We don’t have the money to pay you more.’’ It’s disturbing to me that the college would rather hire lawyers and pay legal fees to fight against housekeepers than pay us a living wage.

We had this whole meeting last year with administration, where they talked about us being at the “top of the competitive market.” Brunswick High School is right down the road, paying their custodians 21 bucks an hour. We have housekeepers that have been here 20 years and more not making that. It’s a disgrace.

It’s disturbing to see all my coworkers afraid for their jobs, afraid to speak up about being overworked and underpaid.

I am sick and tired of the bosses saying to us, “you chose to be a housekeeper.” To me that is so disrespectful. I fell in love and had my own family. I put my family over finishing college. But I am proud to be a housekeeper and feel it’s rewarding. Bowdoin should respect us housekeepers and dining and facilities staff as much as they do everyone else that makes this college run. We are just as important.

They don’t make penny candy anymore. Those days are long gone. I can’t live on what my husband and I bring home monthly. I feel like we should have a living wage so that we can afford to buy steak sometimes and so we can pay our mortgages and everyday bills. I don’t feel like we are asking a lot.

Bonnie Perkins, Beth Icangelo, Jane Davis, Laura Leonard, Melanie Craig, Michael Gilman, Mickey Brockett, Pamela Weeks, Sandy Green, Sherry Cousins, Tenaj Ormsby and Tracey Taylor are all currently employed as Bowdoin housekeepers. 

Editor’s Note, 10/7/19: Matt Orlando, senior vice president for finance and administration and treasurer of the College, responded to claims made in this piece.


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  1. Jane Humpstone says:

    Looking forward to the The Orient publishing the College’s response to this indefensible situation. The College needs to explain how overworking and underpaying a critical segment of the Bowdoin community squares up with the Common Good.

  2. Bowdoin student says:

    Thank you for speaking out! I am so disappointed in Bowdoin. They preach the common good but don’t practice it when it counts. You all are true inspirations, teaching us all that we should speak up against injustice and take care of all members of our communities. We stand with you!!!!

  3. Lori-Suzanne Dell says:

    The names of housekeepers mentioned at the bottom, did they all sign the letter? I was a housekeeper at Bowdoin in 1994 & 1995. I was assigned to Sills Hall on the third shift. Back then there was a lot of training for housekeepers, especially in blood borne pathogen cleanup and chemical use and storage. And, training was two weeks shadowing an experienced Housekeeper. There were uniforms and lots of cleaning equipment and supplies in every building. We often walked to other buildings but rarely carried anything. And, even back then, on Commencement Day we assisted in setup. It was an “All Hands On Deck” event. Even then, I had often assisted Grounds keeping in the winter with snow removal. But, it was voluntary and we were paid time and a half. The pay was pretty fair at the time and the benefits were good. But, even then, we weren’t treated well. If you spoke up or spoke out about something you were written up or outright dismissed. And, there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. And, HR does nothing for employees. HR exists in most businesses to protect the business. Such a shameful situation.

  4. Lori-Suzanne Dell says:

    My best suggestion to those employees who feel they are being mistreated is to consider unionizing. Place a call to union leaders. Throughout American history disgruntled employees have turned to unions to resolve such problems. And, there are laws to protect employees who choose to unionize. We discussed unionizing when I was employed at Bowdoin. Unfortunately, most were afraid they would be fired if they tried to bring a union to campus. Maybe these employees could benefit from Unionization.

    • James Pierce says:

      Speaking as a former shop steward of APWU local 10 I concur with your views. The only way that the housekeeping staff will be able to present a united front to Clayton Rose and his cohorts is to have the power of a union backing them.

      James Pierce
      Bowdoin 1969

  5. Lauren says:

    Absolutely disgusting to see a well-endowed college full of wealthy elites treating their STAFF this way. It doesn’t matter what your job is, you deserve a living wage. The response by this administration is so abhorrent I will be researching their alumni donors and asking them to consider shifting that money to causes to support workers.

    • Class of '17 says:

      If you’re looking for something that specifically supports Bowdoin’s housekeepers, the Bowdoin Labor Alliance has created a fund for them! Should be easy to find with a google.

      Hopefully Bowdoin fixes this horrendous treatment of staff soon by paying them a living wage (or more – they definitely deserve it!). But in the short term, it’s somethiiing.

  6. Anonymous says:

    This is so accurate and also very sad. Dining is in the same boat, we hold steady at the top three in the nation and we still dont get paid a livable wage. Benefits don’t put food on the table, a descent wage does. I hope the my see that if they don’t start paying their employees more they’re going to lose a large portion of their staff. Unfortunately this will never happen.underpaid unappreciated and ignored.

  7. class of 22 says:

    I am horrified at the college’s behavior. The amount of respect I have lost for Clayton Rose and the rest of the administration since arriving Bowdoin is immense. The college must give a response and change their ways, for this is simply unconscionable.

  8. Williams '12 says:

    The only response I want to be seeing from the college is a full apology and immediate wage increases.

  9. Bowdoin student says:

    I came to Bowdoin partly because I felt like it was uncommonly principled as an institution, with a genuine commitment to the common good. Unfortunately, I am increasingly realizing that Bowdoin’s “common good” is mostly a veneer of uncontroversial, one-off, feel-good volunteer programs that mask internal injustices such as this one and show resistance to engaging students in fighting for real, systemic change. This is a disgrace; custodial staff deserve a living wage and basic human dignity. Alumni donors need to hold the college accountable because it seems like money talks with the Bowdoin administration and not much else.

    • Class of 2020 says:

      I feel the same. What happened to the Common Good, the concept that drew me to this school in the first place? Bowdoin touts its virtues so prominently in the Admissions and Alumni offices, but their refusal to implement meaningful change demonstrates that these virtues better suit Bowdoin’s business plan as marketable ideals than principles to abide by in reality.

  10. Young Old Bear says:

    Hm. How can you do a job for 20 years on a wage that is “unlivable?” You seem disgruntled that you haven’t been promoted, Sandy, and rightly upset at what sounds like bad treatment from management. None of that means you deserve to paid more than the market rate for a housekeeping job. If you want to be paid what a custodian is paid, consider becoming a custodian. Or try a new profession if the physical labor of housekeeping is too much for you. Better advice: make a new career as a writer for a Marxist blog–and bring the BLA students along to edit for you.

    “I just wish the Bowdoin community could be in our shoes for a day and see what it’s like.” No, I don’t think that’s what you’re asking for.

    • Shaun Hogan says:

      Young Old Bear,
      I think you are missing the point. The college intentionally labels them as “housekeepers” when in fact the work they do is more akin to a “custodian”. Having worked at Bowdoin myself as a security officer, I’ve seen first-hand the hard work the housekeeping staff does. The work they perform goes well beyond scrubbing toilets, vacuuming carpets, and dusting the common areas. Forget operating heavy equipment like floor buffers or the manual labor required of them for big event setups/takedowns, I’ve seen some god-awful messes they’ve had to clean. I once dealt with a kid who got so drunk he crapped his pants in the bathroom dropping the load on the floor and then walked to his room. I followed the “bread crumbs” he trailed behind him to his room where I found him naked in bed laying in his own foulness. He must have fallen about the common room removing his clothes because they sat in a pile in the middle of the floor surrounded by feces on the floor, furniture, and walls. You couldn’t pay me enough to clean that but you know who did? – housekeepers. Bowdoin, pay them what they’re due.

    • Beth says:

      So where are the custodians at Bowdoin College?

  11. Young Old Bear says:

    Mr. Hogan, a job title is just a description for ease of communication. It is not a precise, technical term. A housekeeper at a college has different responsibilities from one at a hospital or at a hotel. They may be paid different amounts due to differences in the skills demanded by the job. Still, they are all, generally, “housekeepers.” The job may be gross and physically demanding—“hard,” yes. But the job is not as difficult—in terms of required skills—as other jobs, such as being a security guard. Otherwise, surely, the housekeepers would become security guards, so they could give medical attention to the drunk boy instead of cleaning up his mess. But you knew that already.

    Beth, it is widely known that custodians, in addition to janitorial functions, also perform groundskeeping, electrical work, and some plumbing. At Bowdoin, we have groundskeepers and facilities employees who do this work and are paid more than housekeepers for this relatively more skills-intensive job.

    • Beth says:

      Thank you Shaun for the support and acknowledgment of our hard work and might I say greatly value all of the security staff on campus with keeping us safe everyday at Bowdoin College. Your presence provides immeasurable comfort and it truly takes a special kind of person to do that job.

    • Emily R Talbot '16 says:

      No matter the so-called “skill” required for a job, EVERY SINGLE WORKING PERSON deserves a living wage, humane and respectable treatment, visibility and a voice at their job, and the right to assemble against their employers when mistreatment is rampant. You need to wake up and stop fomenting the class divisiveness that only weakens communities, democracies, and labor ethics.

      Alumni need to stand with the Labor Alliance and demand CONGRUENCY at our institution!!!!! This is not an excusable situation in any way, and part of the problem is in holding STUDENTS responsible for cleaning personal messes and messes made from parties they choose to throw. There have to be limits and responsibilities imparted from day one of orientation and much more visibility for all the many staff members of all kinds who uphold what seems like a seamless set of well-oiled cogs, which is really human-powered and undervalued. NOTHING that is addressed in this letter is exaggerated, I am sure of it, and I was always disgusted at my time at Bowdoin by students who continued treating campus like their personal garbage disposal and being so irresponsible with their houses and dorms.

  12. max says:

    Sign the living wage petition here…
    This kind of treatment needs to stop, everyone deserves a living wage and these folks are brave for speaking up

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