It’s Time to Lift Up Our Most Essential Workers: School Custodians


Our school custodians and facilities teams have always had the challenging job of cleaning up messes while protecting public health. During the pandemic, we have been asking school custodians to show up day in and day out to protect us all against COVID-19. We ask them to don PPE and enter classrooms where known cases of COVID-19 have been present. We ask them to use aggressive disinfectants that may have an adverse effect on their health. And we ask them to put their lives on the line to keep our schools open.

All of that essential work can take a toll on mental health. It’s important to be aware of the mental health of our custodial staff during these trying times, and do all we can to balance the strain with appreciation, positivity and recognition. We’ve compiled some ideas and resources to help your school or university make a plan for boosting the mental health of your custodial staff in 2021. 

Your school district or university can implement any of the following programs or projects to show the custodians your appreciation. Whether you are a member of the PTA, a teacher, a dean or a facility manager, consider working across departments and your entire institution to leverage your efforts and spread the message that school custodians are the heroes in this pandemic.

Plan a Staff Appreciation Day

A staff appreciation day may not look like it used to, gathering indoors to share a pizza or catered lunch and celebrate each other. However, many schools and universities have been able to think outside the box and find ways to recognize custodial staff safely. For example, at Salt Lake City School District, the community came together outdoors to distribute catered boxed lunches as custodial staff drove by. Some members of the community brought signs and cheered as the custodians drove through. At The University of Georgia, the President’s Office sponsored an appreciation breakfast for custodial teams. Staff teams were scheduled for specific times when they could walk through a room and receive their boxed breakfast, along with school spirit items like a “Dawg Strong” mask.

Look Into Hazard Pay for Custodial Staff

Hazard pay is extra pay provided by the U.S. Department of Labor for workers whose job includes exposure to hazardous conditions or physical labor. In the spring of 2020, hazard pay was being used to pay many frontline workers, from grocery workers to school personnel and those working in healthcare. Many school staff, including cafeteria workers and school custodians, qualify for this stopgap measure. Unfortunately, hazard pay is not as easy to come by as the federal government has not been able to pass a second stimulus bill to fund this measure. Some state governments have been able to provide the opportunity for hazard pay grants. Check with your local state representative to see if this option is available for your school custodians.

Some universities have found creative ways to provide hazard pay to custodial workers using their own budgets. At the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s housing division, hazard pay is funded through the department’s labor budget. The pandemic has also pushed the school to increase the minimum wage. The university had planned to increase its minimum wage for two years, but only recently was able to make the increase as more and more leaders in the university were able to see the important work that frontline minimum wage workers were doing to keep the university running safely. 

School district leadership may have the option to secure additional funding to be granted as hazard pay, but it will require creative ways of budgeting and thinking. Presenting regularly to the school board about the hazardous and life-saving work custodians are performing will go a long way toward convincing those in charge to look for ways to fund hazard pay. 

Give Paid Time Off When Possible

If hazard pay is not an option for your school or university, look at ways to reward custodial staff with paid time off. Staffing is a challenge for custodial teams everywhere right now. However, a half day of paid time off could be a mental health break that will re-energize a stressed team member while recognizing his or her hard work.

Make sure your staff is aware that they have paid sick leave guaranteed under The CARES Act, passed in March 2020 by the federal government. This grants 10 days of paid sick leave for low-wage workers and can be essential in allowing your custodial staff to stay home if exposed to COVID-19. For employers with existing paid leave policies, the Act’s paid sick time is in addition to any existing leave.  It is applicable to part-time workers as well as full-time workers. Encourage your staff to take time off for public health, and for their own mental health too. 

Spread The News

A little recognition goes a long way toward showing how much we appreciate the work our custodians do for us. Whether you have a robust social media platform at your school or university you can use to recognize staff, or you want to go to the local news, we encourage you to spread the message about your frontline workers.

One opportunity to recognize custodial staff is the Faces of the Frontline column in each issue of Facility Cleaning Decisions magazine. Managers are encouraged to nominate one member of their frontline staff for the honor and winners will be featured throughout the year. This individual should be someone who stands out in the work that they do and how they do it.  “Our goal of this section is to shine a bright spotlight on these frontline workers,” says Facility Cleaning Decisions Editor-in-Chief, Corinne Zudonyi.

At UGA, the campus marketing and communications department have been issuing a “Staff Spotlight” series in social media and the UGA Today e-newspaper that featured several of the staff member’s personal profiles, campus pictures that recognize their work, and employee discount promotions in auxiliary stores around the campus.

Enlist The Help of Your Community

Student groups at secondary schools or colleges or parent teacher associations at elementary schools can be encouraged to show support for the work custodial staff is doing to protect public health. Projects need not be expensive or time-intensive to spread appreciation and boost the mental health of custodians. One community in Illinois acknowledged the life-saving work of school custodians during the pandemic by giving out bags of “lifesavers” candy with notes of thanks and recognition. Student groups at The University of Washington wrote huge thank you messages in sidewalk chalk at the facilities department’s parking lot, while the library staff left snacks and notes of thanks out for school facilities staff.

Stay Positive

For Mike Jones, Director of Custodial Services at Columbia Public Schools in Missouri, his management philosophy throughout this school year has been simple: “You just have to be very very positive and supportive at all times. I tell everyone on our team, be grateful and thank our workers every day.”

Increased communication, access to resources and personal relationships should be integral to your management approach this year. If you can’t meet with your staff in person, make sure you are checking in with them virtually or on the phone regularly. When in doubt, praise your workers for a job well done, acknowledge their role and advocate for them.

The silver lining in all of this is that the world is paying closer attention to the critical role that cleaning plays in public health. Let’s lift each other up and rise to the occasion. Reach out to Healthy Green Schools & Colleges with your own stories about the ways you have been able to lift up your school custodial staff during the past year. Send your stories to Sara Porter.

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