We didn't make this up. Our university happens to be based in the safest city of its size in America. So we wondered, given all this safety: are there stories to be told, people to contemplate, risks to be taken? Find out alongside our blog's authors -- two sections of a journalism reporting class whose goal is to show people at work and at play in and around Irvine, Calif. We invite you to read the articles below.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Workers Face Low Pay, Outsourcing, Harsh Chemicals, Threats and...Dirty Dishes

By Christian Roldan

It’s a cold foggy morning at the UCI student housing complex of Arroyo Vista. “Ahhh! I’m running late,” is what Imelda Flores says as she rushes in the student house, number 1086, where 24 student reside, half of them American and the other half international. Imelda Flores works in maintenance. As she enters briskly, she hurries straight to the supply room and gets her little cart out packed with different cleaning chemicals. Her cart consists of a blue trashcan and attached are three yellow tiers packed with many chemical sprays, towels, and on the side of the trashcan is where the broom and mop is carried. Imelda is dressed in blue jeans and dirty white shoes. She wears a blue collared shirt that says Arroyo Vista on the left side of her chest and underneath that sign is her identification card with a faded picture of herself. Her hair is pulled back and tied up in a bun. As soon as her cart is out, she gets to work. She starts in the kitchen with the sink. There are four dirty dishes lying in the sink. She takes them, scrubs them, and washes them one by one and puts them in the dishwasher to let dry. She then scrubs around the sink, waters it down, and applies a chemical called 409. Next she cleans the counters, microwaves, stoves, outer refrigerator, and outside of the cabinets with her towel and sprays. Lastly, she sweeps the floor and then mops. There are two trashcans before entering the kitchen. Right before anything, she removes the trash and applies new trash bags. After she applies the trash bags, she takes a big sigh and smiles. She looks over to me smiling and says, “Next.”

She pulls her cart outside to the elevator and then goes straight to the guys’ restroom and right before anything she removes the trash from the trash bin and replaces it with a new bag. She gets to work with the sinks first by watering them down, scrubbing them, and finally applying her disinfector. After she cleans the toilets, she finds that there is dried up urine around the toilet floor. She quickly gets down on one knee and scrubs it off and then with a quick excuse me she moves to the showers and begins scrubbing the tiles. As I see all the foam fall to the floor, the lights turn off. I walk to the timer and right before I even switch the light, her hand reaches out and turns the knob, and she says, “It’s ok, I'll do it.” She continues scrubbing the showers and as soon as she finishes she sweeps the floor and mops. I ask, “Are you ok?”

She replies, “Yeah, its just that I almost didn’t make it on time to work today.”

She shakes the mop over the trash can making sure she gets all the trash, explaining, “I always get to work fifteen minutes before so that I can clock in and go to my houses calmly and without rushing, but, today I got here five minutes before and I had to be running around everywhere to make sure everything is clean.”

She adds, “ My husband and brother work here too. So we ride together from Santa Ana. It’s just that today the car battery died and I had to wait for my brother to recharge it.”

As soon as she is done with all the restrooms, we move to the next house. She opens the door and sees the kitchen. She is a little bothered because of the many dishes.

When I see all the dishes I say, “ Do you need help?”

She laughs at me and says, “No its ok. I’m not supposed to clean dishes.”

“What!” I reply surprised.

She responds, “ Yeah the only reason I clean the dishes from the other house, 1086, is because there is usually a few like three or four. In fact, I’m not even supposed to take out the trash.” She removes the trash bags from the trashcan and replaces it. I just do it because I know how it is to grow up in a house with young adults and, besides, my work looks cleaner.”


Fernando Chirino is a member of the Worker Students Alliance (WSA), an organization that fights inequality through multi-racial, anti-sexist, working class solidarity. He says that custodians in Arroyos Vista, a student housing community face unfair treatment from their superiors. Chirino claims that one employee has been threatened with firing due to her pregnancy. Further, WSA also claims that some workers are denied the right to FMLA (Family Medical Leave Atc, which allows for 12 weeks of unpaid job leave), as well as being threatened with firing and subjected to insinuations about having inappropriate relationships with co-workers. Two days later, I see Imelda and ask if they WSA's claims are correct. She responds, “I’m not sure. I don’t talk to anyone unless I have to. As for me, I have never felt like my rights have been violated. I get along with my boss.”

There are two types of worker in the University of California Irvine -- insourced and outsourced. Insourced means being hired directly from the university. Outsourced workers are hired through a private company. Insourced custodian workers do similar work as outsourced custodian workers; however, they receive better wages, and benefits like vision and dental insurance, retirement benefits, and vacation time. There are 17 custodial staff members in Arroyo Vista that are insourced. According to Cathy Lawhon, director of media relations at UCI, there are approximately 110 outsourced workers out of 21,000, and that number has decreased.

But WSA says that UCI is the last UC outsourcing. In addition, the group alleges, the subcontracted workers are not provided with any personal protective equipment or training on the proper use and disposal of hazardous chemicals (carcinogens, toxins, irritants, corrosives, hepatotoxins, nephrotoxins, neurotoxins) and biological wastes like blood born pathogens.

In November, Sociology class 63, Race and Ethnicity, hosted a documentary film about the abuse of workers. Its purpose was to display the hardships of both documented and undocumented immigrant workers from around the world and it included a look at police abuses of immigrants in Costa Meza, Santa Ana, and the City of Orange. After the film ended, a panel discussion was held on the subject of working conditions. Carmen, an outsourced worker spoke about her struggles being outsourced. She said later in an interview that at one point she had to work without gloves when handling cleaning chemicals because she wasn’t provided with any. Often times, she would provide her own gloves. Carmen also said her friend, an older worker, is being pressured and threatened by her supervisors because of her age. On the positive side, she added, her salary went up from minium wage to $12 an hour as a result of student and worker activism. Benefits remain a problem, however, as Carmen acknowledges.

“ We need our benefits. No vacation, medical, or dental," she says. "How are we supposed to live?”

Reporting Notes: 8 hours of observation/3 hour discussion panel With Jornaleros en la lucha, Tonantzin and WSA/½ hour interview with Carmen by person and phone /½ hour interview with Fernando Chirino/½ hour interview with Eric Kitayama/Research from human resources from UCI/Research from WSA facebook blog and joined group on Yahoo/Research from New University/Research from flyer “End subcontracting”

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