OCDSB custodians 'run ragged,' union official says

A negotiator with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation says provincial money meant to hire extra custodians to perform extra cleaning during the pandemic hasn't trickled down to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

Negotiator says provincial money meant for extra cleaning hasn't trickled down

Common 'touch points' such as desks, chairs and door handles are supposed to be getting extra attention to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Millions of dollars intended to bolster cleaning staff in Ontario's schools during the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to make a noticeable difference in the classrooms and corridors of Ottawa's largest school board, according to one union official.

On the advice of public health officials, the Ontario government has earmarked $79 million to hire an additional 1,300 school custodians to keep "touch points" such as door handles, desktops, chairs and bathrooms disinfected to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But Richard Brown, a negotiator with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), says that money hasn't trickled down to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

Brown, who's on secondment from his job as chief custodian at Cairine Wilson Secondary School, spoke with host Robyn Bresnahan on CBC's Ottawa Morning. Their conversation has been edited for length.

The Ontario government has earmarked $79 million to hire hundreds of custodians to keep the province's public schools disinfected. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Have there been any more custodians hired in the OCDSB?

If they have hired them, they've been few and far between, and not nearly enough for the extra work that needs to be done. I haven't seen job postings. As a casual worker, it's minimum wage at the [OCDSB]. I'm not sure that we're going to attract many people at minimum wage to come and do touch-point cleaning.

You visited an elementary school on Friday. What did you see? What did you hear? 

People who are working by themselves are being run ragged. They're being pulled in two or three different directions with no consistent direction about what's the priority. Is it the touch-point cleaning? Is it the broken bottle in the hallway? These elementary schools have 600 to 1,000 kids and there's one person to do the desktops, the chairs and all the extra cleaning that's required. When will their bodies give out? When will exhaustion set in? 

Richard Brown is chief custodian at Cairine Wilson Secondary School, currently on secondment as a negotiator with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation. (Julia Sisler/CBC)

Are you worried that custodians will quit because they are overworked? 

I don't think anybody is going to quit. I think people might have to use some sick leave. You can't keep going in and doing twice and three times the amount of work and not expect somebody to get run down. When people get run down, their body's immune system breaks down and then they get sick. 

You said custodians are looking for guidance about priorities. Where should that guidance be coming from?

Everything flows from the province. The money for extra custodians came down from the province. But why wasn't that money given out in May when we could have had a proper timeline to hire more people, to hold job fairs? The province needs to lead. They have medical experts at their fingertips. They need to tell us what what should be done and in what order.

Some might say the unions will never be happy, and the most important thing is getting our kids back to school. What would you say to those people? 

Getting the kids back to school is a top priority. But certain parameters have to be put in place. Our custodians have been cut to the core over the last 20 years. There's no more to cut. And now they've added all this extra cleaning? Something's got to give. We're not asking to double our workforce. We think 100 to 120 people are needed [in the OCDSB] to help with the extra cleaning. 

A custodian cleans in the cafeteria at a school in Rowlett, Texas, on July 22, 2020. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

What is your biggest fear exactly? Is it the workload on custodians? Or is it the safety of students? 

My members are professionals. They're going to do the best job they possibly can with the resources they have. One of our custodians is a smaller lady and the only size gloves they had at the school were large and extra large, and she takes a small or medium. Not having the proper equipment worries me. Are they going to burn out? Hopefully by the time that sets in, the school board would have hired those extra bodies. But kids' safety? There's no worries about that. My members will make sure that all the touch points and washroom cleanings are done to the standards that are expected. 

In a statement to CBC on Monday afternoon, the OCDSB said it has proposed creating 90 custodial positions this term with the additional funding announced by the province, and has already hired 22 casual staff members.

"Since the announcement of the additional funding on August 26, OCDSB staff have been actively involved in recruiting and filling positions across the entire organization, within the terms of the different collective agreements," the statement said. "Custodial staffing is continuous and we expect additional hiring to occur in the coming days and weeks as we respond to changing needs."

According to the statement, the OCDSB has adjusted the workloads of chief custodians to accommodate the additional cleaning of high-touch surfaces and, where possible, regular tasks have been shifted from daytime to evening custodians.

"With adjustments to daytime work loading and strategic placement of additional available staff, we are currently able to meet the daily cleaning requirements," the statement said.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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