Custodial workers in the residence halls often become another set of parents while students making OU their home away from home.
Rakhi Panjabi Ihiga only spent one year, 1999 to 2000, at Ohio University as part of an exchange program with Hong Kong Baptist University. Fifteen years later, after getting married and living in Hong Kong, Prague and now Colorado, she still remembers Trina Woods.
Woods has worked at OU since 1992 — the first half of her career in Culinary Services, the second in Resident Custodial Services.
Ihiga worked with Woods in Nelson Dining Hall three mornings per week and said she “dreaded” when Woods wasn’t there because they would often chat while prepping the salad bar.
“Trina kind of became like my mom away from home,” Ihiga, 36, said. “She helped me through a lot that year because it was the first time I was away from home and was so far away and experiencing so many new things, and she was always there to listen and to advise.”
Now 59 years old, Woods said she could be a grandma to the students. Yet, her parental feelings haven’t subsided. They’ve grown now that she interacts with students in their homes rather than in the dining hall work environment.
“Say if mom and dad dropped you off, I feel responsible to take care of you while you’re in the building and on the green and make sure … you’re doing what you need to do,” Woods, a custodial worker in Ewing Hall, said. “It’s just a good feeling that you get ‘em back home.”
Neither that responsibility nor those relationships are part of the custodial worker job description, according to Pete Trentacoste, executive director of Housing and Residence Life, though it has become “more of the rule … as opposed to the exception.”
“There’s a deep connection for a lot of them in terms of, like, ‘this is my building. These are my students,’ ” Trentacoste said. “It goes above and beyond just a simple ‘I’m here to do a job.’ ”
Because of that, Trentacoste called the custodial workers “the heroes of the halls.”
University Custodial Services is split into two segments. Custodial Services cleans the academic buildings and works in three shifts: 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. and 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. Resident Custodial Services cleans the residence halls and mainly works from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Both positions come with a 30-minute unpaid lunch and scheduled breaks, according to Steve Mack, director of facilities management.
A typical custodial worker is identified as a “CW-I.” CW-IIs are “lead workers,” Mack said, a job which comes with an increase in pay and responsibilities. Woods was a CW-II in James Hall for three years before returning to a CW-I position in Ewing.
Mack said the custodial staff has more than 200 workers — including temporary service “utility workers” — with 89 in the 43 dorms. CW-Is hired before the most recent contract in 2013, Mack said, earn about $14 to $19 per hour, in addition to benefits. Anyone hired after that contract, he said, earns about $13 to $16 per hour.
Every day in the residence halls, the custodial workers clean the lobby, communal bathrooms, hallways, entrances and some outdoor spaces.
In newer dorms with suite-style rooms, such as Bromley and the “side five,” Mack said they only clean the common spaces.
“A clean environment tends to relate to safe environment, and we also are, where we clean bathrooms, maintaining public health,” he said.
Woods added that she often removes trash, sweeps, vacuums and washes walls or water fountains.
“A lot of people don’t think how often those doors are touched,” she said. “Actually, I think our buildings are cleaner than some of those phones or computers.”
Debbie Dowler, a CW-I who has worked on West Green for five years, said she likes to maintain a daily routine to accommodate the residents and their schedules.
“It is their home, and we like for them to feel comfortable,” the 36-year-old said.
Custodial workers also call in work orders, disinfect rooms of residents who are sick with infectious illnesses and alert staff to any problems such as vandalism or damages.
Barry Douglas, 49, worked in Custodial Services for 10 years before switching to the resident segment about three years ago. Although he still cleaned bathrooms in the academic buildings, Douglas said he also cleaned chalkboards and chairs and often had to buff or scrub floors.
Cleaning in the residence halls takes place in two phases: in-session cleaning during the Fall and Spring Semesters and “building turns” for Bobcat Student Orientation and project work in the summer, Mack said.
Obtaining a position as a custodial worker in Resident Custodial Services can be challenging. When posts are available, a bidding system kicks into gear. Those already within the segment have first choice, Dowler said, then the position becomes open to employees in outside departments.
Seniority is also a factor, Woods said. Luxuries, such as elevators, also influence which halls are bid on.
Woods added that the number of custodial workers needed per dorm depends on the square footage of the hall. For instance, she is the only housekeeper in Ewing Hall.
It took Dowler two years to get into Resident Custodial Services and out of Culinary Services, where she worked for about 10 years. Many others, such as Douglas, work in Custodial Services before moving to the resident segment because it comes with better, more stable hours.
“My daughter was young, and I wanted to be there for her. I knew she would be into sports. … It’s kinda hard to do that when you work night shift,” Tina Brown, a CW-I who works with Douglas in James Hall and previously worked in Custodial Services, said. “It’s always family-driven to want to be in a more stable position.”
Due to gender stereotypes, men aren’t the typical image of a housekeeper, but Barry Arbaugh, a CW-I for nearly 18 years, said it doesn’t mean one is a better custodian.
“I’m more of a mechanic. I never would have seen myself as a person that cleaned,” Arbaugh, who worked in Jefferson Hall for 10 years but now works in Read Hall, said. “But from my standpoint, any of my bathrooms would compare with any of the females’ bathrooms.”
He admitted, however, that he isn’t a fan of the showers.
“I hate wet feet,” the 47-year-old said.
Though the grease at the end of his fingers proves his affinity for cars — he had worked on an ’88 Corvette for 16 years — Arbaugh prefers Resident Custodial Services because it allows him to better juggle his work and play time, especially after he served as a flight line jet engine mechanic in the Air Force for four years.
“(In the Air Force) it just didn’t seem like I ever got off work, and I didn’t want that for the rest of my life,” he said.
Before joining the resident segment, Arbaugh worked in Custodial Services for seven years. He admits that he doesn’t have the most “glorious” job title, but Arbaugh pushes back against the stereotype that the position is for the uneducated.
“Somebody has to do it,” he said. “This professor … asked me, ‘Barry, do you ever think about going to go back to college and becoming more than just a custodian?’ And I said, ‘Well, when I was a jet engine mechanic in the Air Force, it was a very stressful job. If my broom crashes and burns, nobody dies.’
He likened it to the way people treat those who work at McDonald’s.
“You go through McDonald’s, and if you don’t get it right, you’re like, ‘Oh, where’d that bonehead graduate from?’ ” Arbaugh said. “But you don’t ever think about the times you got it right.”
Caring while cleaning
A week before Halloween, Sue Lane, 65, was getting ready to buy candy for her “kids,” the residents of Dougan House.
“We’re the mom away from home,” Lane, a CW-I for about a year who worked in Culinary Services for 18 years prior, said. “They see a familiar face every day. They know that this lady is gonna walk in, and she’s gonna smile at me, and she’s gonna say ‘good morning’ to me. And whether I’m having a good day, bad day … she’s still gonna smile — just like mama does.”
Mack said he often sees the custodial workers take a parental approach.
“Sometimes it’s nice to talk to somebody that’s not directly responsible for anything in your life,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to go to (a residential assistant or director) with an issue because it might be questionable, … but you can go to a custodian and talk to them about anything — except maybe, ‘Hey, I’m the guy that made the mess.’ ”
During her freshman year, Megan Witmer lived next to Arbaugh’s office and said she would talk to him multiple times a day.
“He was like the dad of Jeff Hall,” the now junior studying journalism said. “He would always look out for you. … I don’t think I would have been happy here without him.”
Now that Witmer is an RA in Bush Hall, she said she tries to emulate Arbaugh’s kindness. Witmer and Arbaugh don’t talk as frequently as before, but she said when they randomly see each other, they talk for hours.
“He can start having a conversation with someone like no time has passed. Having someone like that who just knew you for a year, remember your name, your face — that speaks a lot of words,” Witmer said. “That’s something I want to be like.”
Woods’ “genuine” care is what made Ihiga remember and praise her 15 years later.
“You can tell when they need you,” Dowler said. “Others just want to be left alone and that’s OK too, but we are always available and approachable.”
Arbaugh said he just tries to talk to students about life.
“We’re all here with the same mission in mind, which is that we want students to succeed, graduate and live great, productive lives,” Trentacoste said. “And I think that our housekeepers are no different in what they do.”