Breaking Back: Why Florida Schools Are Asking Janitors To Pass A Fitness Test

Sep 25, 2012

Many school districts say math and science teachers are among the most difficult positions to fill.

But in Orlando schools, custodians are the highest in demand.

This summer, the Orange County school district asked principals which positions they needed help filling.

The top answer across the district? School Custodians.

OrangeCountyschools require candidates to pass a physical fitness test before they can get hired. But about 30 percent of custodial applicants who take the test don’t pass it.

The shortage has forced hiring manager Carol Kindt to get creative.

She’s recruiting parents as they register their kids for class.

“We’re doing anything we can to get more people through the application process to the interview,” she said.

The hiring team was luring parents in with free coffee and cookies next to signs that read, “We Need Custodians.”

“So if they wanted to they could walk right into our door, sit down and apply,” Kindt said.

Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando is allocated 28 custodians. But it’s short four janitors. Two are out because of work-related injuries and another two positions are still vacant.

Custodians like Sylvia Moya say they’re working overtime and weekends, scrambling to keep schools clean.

Moya wears a back brace as she drives a golf cart around the 55 acre campus near Universal Studios.

In Spanish she lists all of her morning duties.

“I clean all the bathrooms, put out paper, remove graffiti, pick up trash, clean the tables, clean the cafeteria,” she said. “I do so much.”

Why are Moya and other custodians stretched thin? Because the high cost of work-related injuries is forcing school districts to be more selective about who they hire.

You can see a slideshow of school custodians here

The supply room at Dr. Phillips High is not your stereotypical janitor’s closet. It’s filled with machines the size of small tractors used to empty the dumpsters and wax floors. And those machines can be dangerous.

The Rising Cost of Worker’s Compensation

Janitors and building cleaners have one of the highest work-related injury rates.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, janitors miss more work days than police officers because of on-the-job injuries.

More than 15,000 public school janitors across the country were injured on the job in 2010 according to BLS surveys.

School janitors hurt their backs lifting furniture. They burn themselves with cleaning chemicals and machines.

A custodian at Dr. Phillips High recently broke his arm after slipping on freshly waxed floors, even though he was wearing the right boots for the job.

In 2001, the Orange County school district paid out $775,830 in worker’s compensation—just for custodians.

Since then, worker’s compensation for custodians has ranged from about half a million dollars, to $800,000 a year.

Regina Cockrane is the worker’s compensation manager.

She says there were an excessive number of custodial injures in the school district, so the risk management team came up with an innovative way to bring the numbers down.

Since 2007, the district has required candidates to pass a physical fitness test before they can get hired.

The district has required a new group of employees to take the fitness test every year.

“The senior director of food service heard about the program—that’s another area that does have frequent injuries—and she approached me and asked if she could have that added to her groups as well,” Cockrane said.

Now food service workers must pass a fitness test, as well as some maintenance workers and teaching assistants who work with severely disabled students.

A Test of Strength

Once applicants pass the interview portion of the application process, they are given a date to report to a physical therapy center.

They sit in a chair that has pedals for each arm and each leg.

Custodian candidates lie back on the chair and with one hand lift the pedal as a 50 pound weight pushes against them. They do 5 reps of that on each arm and each leg separately, lifting the machine forward, and also backwards.

Head custodian Tony Rodriguez took the test a couple of months ago. He says it’s kind of like lifting weights in reverse.

“You got to concentrate,” Rodriguez said. “Because if you think you’re too strong for it, it ain’t going to work because we had big guys fail the test.”

Rodriguez didn’t know what to expect when he showed up to the physical therapy center. He says the test is harder than you might expect. But he thinks it’s a good requirement for the job.

“If you take this test and you have a bad back, you’re definitely not going to make it,” he said.

‘The School Has to Get Cleaned’

Rodriguez says school janitors play a big role in creating a good learning environment for students.

“We clean their rooms, we vacuum, we do everything,” he said. “We have football fields, basketball, we have gyms, we have all kinds of large areas that need to be covered every single day.”

It isn’t easy keeping a school this size clean.

Just minutes into the lunch period 3,700 teenagers produce enough trash to fill most of the dumpsters.

Head custodian Tony Rodriguez says janitors empty them at night.

“Because we have heavy machinery that has to come around and we don’t want to have unsafe machines around students,” he said.

Principal Gene Trochinski says custodial vacancies aren’t affecting the students.

“The school has to get cleaned,” Trochinski said.

But it is an extra strain on current staff.

“They have to do their own jobs plus they all pitch in and do the job of the vacancies,” he said. “They have to move quicker and they probably can’t be as thorough.”

He said finding people to apply for the jobs is not the problem.

“We’ve always had applicants,” he said. “It’s been a little difficult to get the custodians through the process because sometimes they get everything completed and then don’t pass that physical test.”

But in the first year of the fitness test, work-related injuries among new custodians went down from 34 injuries to just 13, saving the district $50,000 in worker’s compensation — enough to hire one full-time teacher.

This story is part of WLRN’s StateImpact Florida  education reporting project, which examines the effect of state policies on the lives of students, educators and parents in our community.