Every morning María Mata starts her day with a vacuum on her back.
She dusts every monitor she encounters and cleans the classrooms and offices on the third floor of American University’s Mary Graydon Center.
She has cleaned at AU for 26 years—and has no plans to leave.
“My thing is cleaning,” Mata said in Spanish, “I think the students feel good when they are studying in a clean space.”
A lot of the work is routine—picking up the trash and scrubbing the bathrooms. Sometimes it is dirty work, from removing vomit and human feces in the hallways to cleaning up white foam released from fire extinguishers during an overnight act of vandalism.
It’s all part of the job, she said, without complaining.
Mata is one of 105 housekeeping employees on campus. Many of them have worked here for decades under various contractors. They wear a navy blue top with an AU insignia, but they are not university employees and do not have the benefits other campus personnel have.
“They are the invisible people that make our life possible and make our life grand because of the work that they do,” University Chaplain Joe Eldridge said, “And it is invisible work.”
The housekeepers, who work for the multi-million dollar service company Aramark, supplement the approximate 150 AU employees who work on maintenance of buildings and grounds.
These employees replace light-bulbs and unstop clogged toilets. They beautify the campus with flowers and vegetation, pick up fallen leaves and remove snow.
During stormy weather, some stay overnight to ensure campus safety. When the earthquake shook the region in August, they inspected each building before anyone was allowed back in.
“It is not always recognized the level of effort and the sacrifice of all those who make sure the facilities don’t get in the way,” Willey Suter, facilities management director, said, “All of us work hard, all of us have families. We all go about this because this is something we like to do.”
‘They are part of this community’
The AU students and faculty recognize the work, said Aaron Montenegro, a master’s student that has supported efforts to increase benefitsfor housekeeping employees.
“They are subcontracted so in a sense they are ‘the other.’ They are not here, they just come in, do the job and they are out,” he said, “But it is more than that. The workers interact with the students and faculty. They feel welcomed here, they have been here for so many years.”
Three years ago Montenegro started pairing AU students with employeesso the students would learn Spanish and the employees would learn English.But his initiative has gone beyond a language exchange.
Students have advocated on the employees’ behalf, seeking benefits such as better parking rate and tuition remission for the workers, many of whom have expressed desire to have their children enrolled at AU.
Ana Castillo, who started working at AU in 1994 earning less than $5 per hour and has since worked under four different contracting companies, is one of them.
Castillo, 39, now makes a little more than $13 an hour and worries that with her salary she won’t be able to pay for her two sons to go to college. Now that one is in high school, she said she wishes she had the tuition benefits university employees are entitled too.
“I have spent almost half of my life here. I love this campus, I have seen it change and have made friends here and if my son qualifies for admission, I would like him to study here,” she said.
Suter, who supervises the housekeeping staff, said although the university doesn’t give them the benefits it makes sure the workers retain their jobs every time there’s a change in contractor.
But some think it is only fair for the employees to have the benefits having been part of the AU community for many years.
“I would like to see them have certain benefits,” Eldridge said, “They are trying to raise families, they are working very hard, they deserve recognition for all their hard work.”
“They have access to every room on campus, yet they can’t check out a library book. They can’t go to the gym. They can’t use a computer. So, systematically they are excluded and the school wants to talk about community and inclusion, but at the same time they are doing this? It just seems absurd to me,” he said.
Some employees say they would like some changes, but say they are just content with having a job in a place where they feel embraced by students and faculty.
“Cleaning work is hard work,” said Mata, as she put down the heavy warm vacuum. “But it is not hard to do when you have friendly people around.”