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As COVID-19 Cases Mount At University of Miami, Janitors Fight For More Protective Equipment

University of Miami die in protest UMESA provided.jpeg
Provided by UMESA
University of Miami students and employees hold a "die-in" at the Coral Gables campus on Sept. 4, 2020. Demonstrators were protesting subcontracted employees' working conditions, among other grievances.

Subcontracted janitors at the University of Miami say they want gowns and hazmat suits to clean areas of the campus that are suspected to be contaminated with the coronavirus.

An online training module that was required for those returning to the University of Miami’s campus for the fall semester included a section on the school’s stringent protocols for cleaning and disinfecting.

The video shows people cleaning in head-to-toe personal protective equipment: one wearing a gown and gloves, wiping a table; another in a hazmat suit waving a spray wand.

Student activists discovered that the clips were stock footage.

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The people who actually clean the university’s facilities are provided with much less protective gear, according to a janitor and the union that represents the hourly subcontracted workers.

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Screenshot of iStock by Getty Images gallery
Stock footage of a woman cleaning a table was used in a University of Miami training module familiarizing students and employees with COVID-19 reopening procedures. Subcontracted janitors on campus say they are provided with much less protective gear than what is represented in the video.

The janitor, Antonio Vento, said he and his colleagues receive face shields, gloves and surgical masks — although some have complained they’re not getting a fresh mask every day.

“I feel very, very important,” Vento told WLRN, in Spanish. “We have been on the front lines here, fighting against COVID to ensure that students and workers feel safe. … It is important, but it is also dangerous.”

Vento said he is “practically in quarantine” after work when he goes home, where he lives with his wife and father. Right away, he takes off his clothes and shoes and takes a hot shower. Then, he wears a mask and stays in only one part of his house. He sleeps on a cot, separate from his wife.

“We talk a lot among workers about all the things we have to do to support our family,” he said.

Through their union, SEIU 32BJ, the janitors have been asking for gowns and N95 masks in addition to gloves and face shields for those who clean the common areas of quarantined floors in campus dormitories. They also want hazmat suits for those who are fumigating areas suspected to be contaminated with COVID-19.

The university has reported nearly 300 cases of COVID-19 among students and employees since the start of the fall semester, according to a public online dashboard. Dozens of students who have tested positive or come into contact with infected people have been isolated in on-campus housing.

University of Miami president Julio Frenk is a global public health expert. Previously, he has served as a top official in the World Health Organization, Mexico's health secretary and dean of Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Frenk's 2017 earnings from the university as $1.5 million.

A university spokeswoman would not comment on the decision to include the misleading stock footage in the online training video or answer questions about the janitors’ equipment, instead referring WLRN to the facilities contractor, ABM.

“We talk a lot among workers about all the things we have to do to support our family."
Antonio Vento, a janitor at the University of Miami

A representative for ABM would not provide an interview, respond to specific questions about the equipment available to janitors or comment on the claims from Vento and his union about working conditions.

An emailed statement from ABM said the company’s 450-plus employees at the University of Miami have the supplies they need to stay safe, according to standards from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have been and will continue to ensure that our team members are informed, properly trained and provided the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and supplies needed, based on guidance from OSHA [and] the CDC … to stay safe while performing their work,” according to the company’s statement.

“Nothing is more important to ABM, especially during the pandemic, then the safety of those we serve and our team members,” the statement said.

The company appears to be prohibiting employees from speaking out about their working conditions. English and Spanish-language flyers distributed to UM janitors — pictures of which were obtained by WLRN — instruct ABM employees on how to handle inquiries from journalists: “Be polite, but do not answer any questions,” and “simply state, ‘ABM Corporate Communications will respond to your questions.’”

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A notice distributed to University of Miami subcontracted employees directs them not to talk to the media and instructs any questions to be directed to ABM Corporate Communications.

Student activists who have rallied on behalf of subcontracted workers organized a “die-in” protest on campus last week. In Spanish, workers and students chanted: “Yes, we can!” and “Justice!”

“What we've been trying to do is show active solidarity with those who have been sort of forgotten by campus leadership,” said Esteban Wood, a UM senior and co-founder of a group called UMESA, UMiami Employee Student Alliance. He said his mother previously worked as a janitor for ABM.

Wood said he sees the working conditions for subcontracted employees as a racial justice issue. The janitors are mostly immigrant women of color, according to the union.

“If you're going to be relying on the backs of mostly minority women to maintain the campus,” Wood said, “then you're going to have to show them some respect.”

WLRN Sundial producer Leslie Ovalle contributed to this story.