To the editor:
An opinion piece by 12 of Bowdoin’s 54 housekeepers and the lead editorial in the October 4 edition of The Bowdoin Orient remind us that housekeepers do critical and challenging work at the College. But much of what is asserted in the paper is inaccurate or drawn from experiences that occurred years ago. Additionally, both pieces ignore the substantial work that has been done or that is currently underway to ensure that Bowdoin housekeepers are appreciated, properly compensated, and provided with a work environment that is open, fair and safe.
It is important to acknowledge at the outset that cleaning our facilities, restoring spaces after events and picking up after other people is often tough and unpleasant work—here or anywhere. Our colleagues who do this work day in and day out deserve our respect, and we all need to do what we can to reduce their burden and to demonstrate our appreciation for their amazing work.
Saying thank you is important, but we also encourage employees to come forward when there are problems on the job, and we provide a variety of mechanisms for doing so. We want to know when working conditions need to be addressed, and absolutely no one is disciplined for speaking up. During the past two years, we have been listening carefully to the concerns and suggestions of our housekeeping staff and we continue to take concrete steps in response.
We have replied previously to inaccurate, misleading and exaggerated information published in the Orient and elsewhere about Bowdoin’s housekeepers. The facts are posted on the Bowdoin website. But some of the new claims published Friday—and the editorial by the Orient staff—require an additional response. These new claims deal specifically with issues of safety, training, workload and work schedules, distance to work sites and engagement with supervisors and with the College.
There is nothing more important at Bowdoin than safety. The process for new housekeepers has been restructured and requires extensive orientation within their first two days of employment. Required training includes more than three hours on dealing with blood-borne pathogens and other hazardous materials and chemical safety, as well as a full overview with a member of the Environmental Health and Safety staff. The training also instructs housekeepers on the protocol for reporting accidents and injuries. Immediately following the two-day orientation, new housekeepers perform two weeks of job shadowing and receive on-the-job training in the buildings where they are assigned.
In addition to training and orientation for new housekeepers, all housekeeping employees are trained annually—both online and in a classroom setting—to deal with blood-borne pathogens, and they receive periodic training from experts in workplace safety (one such session took place Wednesday, October 16).
We know that housekeeping jobs are physically demanding and that repetitive motion injuries are common in the industry. At Bowdoin, our safety scores significantly outperform industry averages each year because of the attention paid to proper cleaning techniques. Lightweight microfiber mops, electric shower scrubbers and other ergonomic equipment were added to housekeeper toolkits, and we know from many housekeepers the difference these changes have made in their work.
If there is ever an issue with air quality, the College immediately hires consultants to conduct tests and to mitigate any problem. When occasional reports of lice surface in the Children’s Center (a common problem brought into schools and daycare facilities), housekeepers are notified of the nature of the work-order before entering the facility and basic protocols are followed to perform the cleanup.
Workload and Work Schedules
No employee at the College is expected or required to complete more work assignments than can typically be conducted in a regular work day, and overtime is infrequently requested and rarely mandatory. Protocols are in place to reduce building cleaning services when staffing levels are low. There were no vacancies in housekeeping from November 2018 to May 2019. Since May, there have been a total of three vacancies on the housekeeping staff: one retirement, one promotion to another department in August and one resignation in May. In what is a very tight labor market in Maine, two of these vacancies have since been filled. With regard to the work schedule, many housekeepers have told us that they prefer an early morning start, and that changing to a later schedule would not be welcome.
Two years ago, the College’s events and set-ups crew was restructured and supplemented with additional staff. This crew—like our housekeepers—does amazing work. The result has been a dramatic reduction in requests for lightweight setup assistance from housekeepers over the last two years. And housekeepers are no longer called upon to move heavy furniture like they had been in the past.
Distance to Work Sites
Those familiar with the Bowdoin campus know that, with the exception of the Schiller Coastal Studies Center and the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island—both of which have dedicated staff—all of our facilities are on or close to campus. Some housekeepers choose to drive rather than to walk to Stowe Inn and to Mayflower and Pine Street apartments, but everything needed for their jobs is stored at those sites. When heavy equipment is required, it is transported using a College van. During a ten-day mandatory overtime period in late May when Commencement and other campus events require additional staffing, supplies and minor equipment are often moved between buildings as necessary to complete the work in a compressed timeframe. Each housekeeper has access to a pull cart purchased over the last couple of years to transport the supplies, but some still choose to drive.
Engagement with Supervisors and with the College
There has been a great deal done in recent months to improve the lines of communication between housekeepers, their supervisors, and others at the College. This past summer, I asked Mary Lou Kennedy—who has led Bowdoin’s highly regarded dining service for over 30 years—to spend the next year as an internal management consultant for the housekeeping department, reporting directly to me. Mary Lou just completed individual meetings with each of our housekeepers to hear directly from them about work assignments and conditions, their work relationships with other housekeepers, and their successes and challenges. Mary Lou will use the information she has gathered to recommend additional improvements.
These are just some examples of what we are doing at the College to continually improve the workplace. We’ve made a lot of progress, and we will continue to listen and move forward with the best interests of our housekeepers and all employees in mind. It is also incumbent on each of us to pay attention to our own habits that add to the burdens of our housekeepers.
We will continue to encourage all employees to speak up when there are problems, when they have concerns, and when they have suggestions for improving workplace conditions at the College.
Housekeeping can be challenging and unpleasant work, and our colleagues who do this work, like every employee at Bowdoin, deserve leading wages and benefits, a safe and respectful working environment and our appreciation. Our commitment is to work every day to provide these things.
Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration & Treasurer