Why Salt Lake Community College is having a hard time hiring enough custodians

The college says the problem is not unique among Utah’s higher ed institutions.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

Salt Lake Community College’s custodial staff, which is responsible for cleaning and maintaining over 50 buildings every week, is experiencing a staff shortage.

Of the 156 total custodial positions at the college, 65, or 42%, are currently unfilled, and there has been a gradual decline in the number of employees since the pandemic first hit in March 2020.

Having recently attended the quarterly meeting with the Utah Collegiate Custodial Association, David Earl, maintenance and custodial manager at SLCC, said the shortage is widespread.

“There’s not one university or college that isn’t having this problem,” Earl said.

At the beginning of October, hourly pay for entry-level custodial positions increased from $12 to $14. Bob Askerlund, associate vice president of facilities, hopes the increase will improve the situation, but he acknowledged the ongoing difficulty.

“It’s hard to keep people, let alone recruit them,” Askerlund said, adding the college recruits any way it can, including the placement of a QR code on staff vans that sends users to the main HR landing page for applicants.

Pedro Leonardini, a custodial supervisor, said they haven’t had many people apply for these positions since the pay increase, suggesting this may have to do with the fact that there are similar jobs that pay the same hourly rate, if not higher.

“Many companies such as hotels offer 16 to 20 dollars per hour for cleaning and customer service employees, even offering bonuses if they stay more than 90 days,” Leonardini said.

Leonardini, who has been an employee at the college since 1994, said the pandemic has completely changed the thinking of the employees.

“Many of them didn’t want to expose themselves to COVID-19 and left work [which] caused more tasks to be assigned to the employees who still remained,” he said. “Some of them felt that they were overloaded with their assignments and also decided to quit work.”

Any increases in hourly pay for part-time employees at the college is an institutional decision, and a costly one at that, according to Askerlund.

“You’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, when you [increase wages],” he said. “Our only source of revenue is tuition, but student enrollment is declining right now, so that makes it especially difficult.”

Askerlund met last month with the faculty and staff associations, as well as members of the COVID-19 Task Force, to find ways to help the custodial staff — which could included faculty cleaning their labs themselves, and better communication if instructors change rooms to prevent custodial staff from cleaning unused rooms.

Askerlund said this meeting brought a much better awareness to this issue.

“I think that was pretty effective — just to have that conversation and get that out there [which] has helped spread the word,” Askerlund said.

After the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most people get the coronavirus through direct contact with someone who was sick or airborne transmission, not a contaminated surface, Askerlund said his staff could be more efficient.

“Once that came out, David [Earl] got some fogging machines that hit the classes, and I think we’re more effective with those rather than trying to wipe every desk, seat, and flat surface,” Askerlund said.

Other safety measures the facilities and custodial department has taken include increasing the density of air filters and introducing more fresh air through the heating and cooling systems, which can reduce airborne transmission.

Andrew Christiansen wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.