“In the unlikely event I ever become president of a company, my first order of business will be to promote the janitor to executive vice president. Then I’ll call him into my office and say “All right, Herb, I want you to tell me what’s going on in the company. Care for a drink before we begin? I think I have a bottle of Scotch around here someplace.”
‘Lower left drawer of your desk,’ Herb will reply, ‘Right behind your box of El Puffo cigars, which, I might add, are excellent.’”
— Patrick McManus, The Good Samaritan Strikes Again
Day in and day out, the custodians are the only people at UFV that enter every room in the university campus. They pick up the trash, they wipe everything down, they make sure that everything is as it should be. Their job is the kind that if it is done well, goes unnoticed. But the team of custodial staff is far from unremarkable. The Abbotsford crew is made up of fourteen custodians on contract as well as several auxiliary staff. These men and women are essential to ensuring the campus runs smoothly.
Custodian Shawn Peters has been at UFV for almost seven years now. He walked me through the ins and outs of what custodians deal with on a daily basis, and is the source of all the quotes you see in this feature.
Custodians are on the frontlines of the germ and bacteria war and there is plenty of casualty. “We get a lot of sick time because we’re around a lot of germs,” he says. “Every day there’s at least one-person sick. Flu season sometimes, half the crew is off sick.”
The custodians do much more than clean the university. They are trained as first responders in the event of any security threats, they do small maintenance work, they report suspicious behaviour, and they are often responsible for offering directions to lost first years on their way to classes.
“Come talk to us, we love helping people.”
When it comes to stories about UFV, the janitors have a wealth of knowledge surpassing many of the other departments. The custodians know the dirt on which professors are the messiest, how much love the CIS profs have for Tim Hortons, and which offices are fire hazards because of mountains of books and papers.
“There was one prof who [had] so many boxes in his office you can only open the door maybe 30 inches.”
Custodians are often viewed as the bottom rung of the ladder in the hierarchy of employees at UFV, but their benefits offer them chances many other staff don’t have the time to pursue.
Janitors are offered reduced tuition rates as well as health benefits. Peters is currently working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology during the day before he goes to work in the evenings.
Another custodian has completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts while working as a custodian and is now working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“A lot of people think if you wear a smock not a suit you’re a bit of an idiot. But, no one knows the campus like custodians.”
Polishing and waxing the floors at UFV is incredibly tedious and time consuming. One of the custodial staff, of their own volition and on their own time did some research — cost comparison and projections — and presented a proposal to the director of facilities. He proposed that UFV buy a machine that chips up the floors that need to be waxed and turns them into polished concrete.
The polished concrete requires very little maintenance and the amount of money that UFV will save over the next 20 years on reduced maintenance of the floors is approximately $2.5 million. The proposal was accepted and UFV recently purchased this machine.
“One of our favourite things we look forward to all year is the [UFV] president, Mark Evered, invites us over to his house for dinner, a catered dinner. He does a speech about how he appreciates us. He knows all of our names, he knows our families’ names, when he sees us in the hallway he stops and talks to us.”
Perhaps Evered’s attentiveness to the custodial staff stems from his own past. Back in his youth Evered worked as a part time custodian to help pay for his undergraduate studies in Hamilton, Ontario. Evered did not work at a university, instead he did general cleaning and facilities maintenance of a small apartment building and a couple shops, including weekly cleaning of a hair salon.
The one story of the night that all the custodians share equal enthusiasm over is the B building elevator kisser. For the past seven years, there has been a person who, several times a week, kisses the wall of the elevator leaving a bright red lip print. Mixed laughter and despair were shared at the break room table as the staff each recounted their own experiences scrubbing the lip print off the wall.
However undesirable the situations that the custodial team faces, they all seem to share a sense of contentment with their work.
“We know the staff on a first name basis. We have students, regulars on a first name basis. We have tuition benefits; we have medical benefits. At the end of the day, you can’t get a better job than being a custodian.”