School custodians in Hamilton are on strike — here's what they do every day

Hamilton's school caretakers are among those on strike on Friday.   (Charlie Neibergall/The Associated Press - image credit)
Hamilton's school caretakers are among those on strike on Friday. (Charlie Neibergall/The Associated Press - image credit)

Hamilton's public school board says it'll try to keep schools open despite their 500 caretakers and maintenance staff going on strike along with other CUPE members working in schools across the province — but what does a day in the life of a custodian look like?

Blake Corkill is the head caretaker at Memorial Elementary School and president of CUPE 4153 which represents Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) workers.

HWDSB is one of the few school boards in Ontario still open.

He said caretakers have a morning shift from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and an afternoon shift from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. There can be anywhere from two to seven workers at a school.

While both shifts are important, Corkill said most of the cleaning happens in the afternoon.

"Our afternoon caretaking staff are the backbone of the cleanliness of the schools," he said.

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The morning shift will start by turning off the building's alarms and flushing water around the building.

It's a routine he said is approved by public health and not doing so is against public health guidelines.

"Some buildings require flushing daily like mine, others are weekly or twice weekly," he said.

"In my building this takes about 35 to 40 minutes and needs to be done before any students or staff enter the building."

That is per guidance from public health, he said, and if schools don't do that, they could fail an inspection from public health. It's unclear if all HWDSB schools did the required flushing on Friday.

Then Corkill said caretakers inspect school grounds for any damage, vandalism or debris.

"This also has to be done before anyone else enters the building, which in approximately half of the schools is the daycare at 7 a.m.," he said.

Submitted by Blake Corkill
Submitted by Blake Corkill

Caretakers have a designated area to clean and keep tidy, according to Corkill.

Throughout the day, they also tend to spill and accidents, while also cleaning up garbage after lunch, making fixes around the school and inputting work orders.

Corkill said there are also seasonal duties like checking the boilers, room temperatures and clearing snow.

"I can be outside for three to four hours cleaning up walkways and areas around my building, running back and forth between inside and outside for spills and accidents while trying to get things cleaned up and safe outside," he said.

The afternoon staff may have upwards of 15 classrooms to disinfect, clean, vacuum, sweep and mop, according to Corkill.

"Classrooms have a designated time allotment of 20 minutes regardless of what condition they were left in by students, washrooms have at least 10 minutes," he said.

"Many schools have rentals in the evening for sports or community events and those are looked after by our afternoon staff as well."

They also have to test well water for schools with wells and are paid a premium for doing so, he said.

Staff shortages are a 'constant pressure'

Corkill said staff shortages are a "constant pressure" on the team.

"When absences occur, many times there are no replacement workers available and a school is on 'priority cleaning' which means only certain tasks are done throughout the entire school like garbage collection, floor sweeping and disinfecting," he said.

Shortages, he said, are a "direct result of the low wages."

"Many people are hired by the HWDSB and don't stick around long enough to complete their probation once they fully understand just how challenging the job is and the physical and mental demands that come with it," he said.

He said he doubts schools can stay open for long without caretakers.

Dawn Danko, HWDSB chair, and at least two other trustees have stated their support for workers on strike.

Danko said schools may be open today, but it's unclear if that will be the case next week.

"Our maintenance workers are critical players in our schools. We cannot stay open for any sustained length of time [without them]," she said in a phone interview.

Donna Skelly, the Progressive Conservative member of provincial parliament in Flamborough—Glanbrook, said the government offered CUPE a fair deal, but the union wouldn't take strike action off the table, making negotiations impossible.

"We had no choice ... we have been negotiating in good faith since the beginning but our priority is kids, keeping our two million students across Ontario in school," she said.

"Let's just do what's truly right for kids ... they can no longer be pawns, they have to get back to class," she said.