Tufts lays off janitors three months after student hunger strike

Meet one 67-year-old Tufts janitor

Tufts University sophomore Jenna Sherman, left, and freshman Mica Jarmel-Schneider were among students on a hunger strike to protest janitorial lay-offs in May.
Tufts University sophomore Jenna Sherman, left, and freshman Mica Jarmel-Schneider were among students on a hunger strike to protest janitorial lay-offs in May. –Stephan Savoia/AP

A devoted group of Tufts students spent most of last school year protesting the school’s plan to lay off some of its janitorial staff. In May, with graduation and the end of the semester close, they needed a Hail Mary.

Some students involved in the Tufts Labor Coalition decided to go on a hunger strike. Several of them refused to eat for six days, while dozens of others joined them in solidarity by occupying a space near the administration building.

The strike worked — temporarily.

But on Monday, four part-time custodians received layoff notices, and organizers and janitors fear more layoffs will follow. Tufts employs about 200 janitors in all. One was let go before Monday as part of Tufts’ reorganization process.

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Nicole Joseph, a member of the Tufts Labor Coalition, said the organization believes the administration intentionally cut the jobs while students are still away on summer vacation. Joseph said the move seemed like a way to avoid more protests.

University spokeswoman Kim Thurler said the custodial contractor, DTZ, had originally planned for the reorganization several months ago.

“We agreed to extend that completion date to the summer in order to ease the transition for the custodians and our community,’’ she said.

Thurler said DTZ told the university all custodians who were laid off will be offered permanent positions at other DTZ sites in the Boston area, as well as two weeks of pay.

DTZ did not respond to requests for comment from Boston.com.

Tufts planned the layoffs because it found out it was paying more for cleaning services than other similar universities, Thurler said. The restructuring will save the university about $900,000.

Paula Castillo, who’s been a janitor at Tufts for the past 19 years, said she first heard about the impending lay-offs last September from a coworker. Castillo said she’s never been able to talk directly to the Tufts administration about the layoffs because administrators refuse to meet with the janitorial staff.

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“The group of students who support us janitors are the only ones in contact with the administration,’’ she said. “[During the semester], I meet with the students every Monday night at 9 p.m. to give them information on what’s going on with us and what we’re going through, and also how we can work together to reach the president’s heart.’’

Thurler said Tufts custodians are employed by DTZ and are members of the Service Employees International Union. Legally, she said only DTZ and the SEIU can negotiate terms of employment.

The initial layoffs were supposed to happen across Tufts’ three campuses before the beginning of last spring semester. Students staged a sit-in at the Tufts administration building in December. After 33 hours, Tufts officials agreed to postpone the layoffs until at least this past April.

Officials also agreed to have bi-weekly meetings with the labor coalition, which Joseph said weren’t productive. She said the administration seemed only to justify the layoffs, hinting that they’d happen eventually.

Tufts University students break camp after ending their hunger strike in May. —Barry Chin/The Boston Globe

By the end of the school year, the labor coalition decided they needed to take drastic measures to prevent the layoffs. A demonstration that blocked traffic led to some students being arrested. Then came the hunger strike, then a march through the school’s campus, where students, janitors and other supporters yelled out in both Spanish and English.

After that loud, colorful, spirited parade, the semester ended. Silence followed.

Many of the students left for internships and summer jobs, but the janitors stayed. There were no new developments until July, when DTZ required all janitors to choose new shifts.

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Castillo said some full-time employees were forced to switch to part-time shifts in order to keep their jobs. Her own hours changed. Instead of starting at 7 a.m. and working until 3 p.m., she now works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The one-hour change might not sound like a big deal, but has an impact on her diabetes appointments.

“The shift in our work plus the change of our schedules have had a large impact on us,’’ she said. “I used to schedule my weekly hospital appointments around 4 p.m. after work, but now that my hours were changed, I can’t go at 4.’’

Castillo also said her workload will increase with fewer coworkers, which worries her because she’s 67 and not as strong as she used to be.

“The problem is that I won’t be able to clean the 120 bathrooms, and four buildings with three to five floors that I’m assigned to,’’ she said. “We won’t be able to finish all the work they’ve assigned us. What they want is to take out all the elders, and it’s difficult to find a job because of my age. I won’t be able to.’’

Classes begin at Tufts on September 8. Joseph said she isn’t quite sure what the organization has planned, but they’ve been in touch with the janitors.

“I’m grateful for the kids,’’ Callisto said. “I find that they’re the people who invite us in and want our voices to be heard. They still support us, and we support them.’’

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