February 15, 2019

Response to The Orient’s Report on Low Housekeeping Wages and Mislabeling

Workers and Students Respond to The Orient’s Report on Low Housekeeping Wages and Mislabeling: 

Disclaimer: We, the authors of this response, are willing to speak our minds about the deceptive practices of Bowdoin College revealed in this week’s issue of the Orient. We understand that making such public statements, even anonymously, poses risks for those employed by the College. We commend those workers who have been willing to speak their minds, as well as those who work tirelessly and have not yet been able to engage in this conversation.

Ever since the living wage campaign at Bowdoin began, the administration’s silence and denial has revealed its profound discomfort at the idea that its low-wage workers should live meaningful lives. Now, the administration’s argument against a living wage has lost its footing. 

From the start, Bowdoin set its own terms to justify paying workers an unlivable wage. The college conducted its own market-factors study, used to calculate its wages, by comparing Bowdoin to corporations like Walmart and local businesses like Amato’s, a fast-food Italian chain. This is how the College decided to pay its housekeeping staff $12.35 an hour—a solid 10 cents above the local Burger King’s enticing offer of $12.25. 

New findings reveal that the college has also set its own terms to justify this unlivable wage by intentionally mislabeling workers as “housekeepers,” when their work is more accurately reflected as “custodial” or “cleaning and janitorial.”

The Maine Department of Labor’s (DOL) “Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates” provides estimates to help local employers determine wages by occupation. According to this database, compensation for “housekeeping” work in Cumberland County is estimated at $11.28 an hour, while compensation for “custodial” work, done by janitors and cleaners, is estimated at $14.10. Unlike Bowdoin, Colby and Bates label campus cleaning staff as custodians. Down the road at Brunswick and Mt. Ararat high schools, cleaning staff—also labeled as custodians—make between $17 and $23.07 an hour.

The Maine DOL defines “custodial” work done by “janitors and cleaners” as the performance of “heavy cleaning duties...cleaning floors, washing walls and glass, and removing rubbish,” while “housekeeping” work is strictly limited to “light cleaning...to maintain private households...making beds, replenishing linens, and cleaning rooms.” 

Bowdoin’s “Job Code Description Details,” however, demonstrate that “housekeepers” are expected to perform duties beyond the scope of the Maine DOL’s definition of “housekeeping.” These duties include “floor (refinishing)...carpet (extraction)...two way radio...general cleaning” with “hand tools, (buffing and burnishing), to walk behind and ride-on scrubber/sweepers, vacuum (including backpack), (and) shower/foam gun.” Furthermore, the “Housekeeping Team Guidebook” states that “housekeepers” are expected to perform “limited snow removal, service bathrooms...maintain clocks, (and) inspect fire extinguishers.” Some are even expected to handle “pool maintenance.”

As the Orient reports, “the majority of custodial staff at schools, colleges, hospitals and other residential facilities are categorized as janitor and cleaner, according to the Maine DOL. After consulting with Merrill Huhtala, program manager for Occupational Employment Statistics at the Maine DOL, it became evident that “the maid and housekeeping label is actually used quite sparingly at educational or residential institutions such as Bowdoin.” Huhtala also states, “My experience has been, most of them get coded into the janitor and cleaner title. Because they’re running floor buffers and that sort of thing.”

“Housekeepers” are conscious that their title does not reflect the work that the college demands from them or the inadequate compensation they receive:

“I’ve got the wood floor that I gotta maintain...the windows inside and out in the hallway”

“I do floors, vacuum them, wash them, I use the scrubber, I do trash and recycling...clean the mirrors and carpets with the machine.” 

Workers are each assigned to specific buildings, which they are responsible for keeping in working order:

“We try to fix everything ourselves as much as we can before calling anything in”

“I submit a work order at least once every three weeks...sometimes even one each week...for broken things.”

“Look at what they do at motels and what we do here. It’s totally different.”

Yet, when “housekeepers” bring up these contradictions, management is quick to uphold the label:

“Housekeepers” have reported being told by their management, “You’re not custodians, you’re housekeepers.”

As students, we are horrified that our college would willingly deceive its workers and members of the Bowdoin community simply to avoid paying its workers a wage that reflects the quality of their work. In our conversation with workers, they too expressed disappointment:

“It makes me feel really rotten,” stated one housekeeper.

“You mean degraded?” responded another.

“Housekeepers” have described their work environment as one defined by fear, miscommunication and intimidation—especially towards those who have engaged with the Bowdoin Labor Alliance. Thus, we are voicing these sentiments ourselves and making the following demands. 

We, members of the Bowdoin Labor Alliance, call upon the college to:

1. Immediately relabel its cleaning staff from “housekeepers” to “custodial staff,” to appropriately reflect the hard work they perform on a daily basis.

2. As per recommendation of the Maine DOL, increase cleaning staff salaries to $14.10, at minimum.

3. Proactively set up pathways for communication with management and the college administration, so workers themselves can freely voice these thoughts and concerns. 

Workers should be able to participate in this public conversation without fear of intimidation and interrogation. Even if a platform is created to find solutions for this issue, however, the college must first step up and engage in this conversation. Silence on the part of the college is deafening and gets us nowhere.

With time, it will become increasingly difficult for Bowdoin to keep people in jobs while denying their dignity, humanity and right to a fair wage. Some workers are already fed up and looking for options elsewhere:

“Every time I drive up to Lewiston, I’d be darned if I don’t apply to Bates...do what you got to do.”