I used to understand state government finance, or at least the basic principles. Having served Mother Texas for some 38 years, I’ve lived through every kind of budget cycle, those during rainy days and those when the economic sun smiled brightly. The nine years I spent in Comptroller Bullock’s budget, research, and revenue estimating divisions, educated me on the basic elements and factors in budget preparation, appropriations requests, and state revenue estimates . . . and the need for an occasional gloss of creative accounting.
But even with these insights, I am mystified as to how the Texas Facilities Commission is saving money on the state’s janitorial contract. About a year ago, the agency ended its contract with a company whose crews, like the brownies of Scottish legend, came at night to empty our waste baskets, vacuum, and dust. Office staff who departed by 5:30 rarely caught a glimpse of the cleaning crews. Even among those of us who frequently work later hours, the crews were hardly noticed because these unicorns of the night strived to be unobtrusive.
But then, the State found a cheaper alternative for these services. Apparently, one part involved a new and less costly contract crew. The other part of the alternative was the office workers, available for induction into the trash collection crew. We are now responsible for emptying our own waste baskets, for which purpose we were issued a blue container for recycling, and a tiny black one for regular trash. These would be emptied into their respective larger bins situated in convenient places in hallways and other common. The contracted janitorial crew would come by periodically and empty the bins, but, as part of this new deal, they would no longer vacuum and dust every evening, but rather once every two weeks. Given this information, we assumed that the janitorial efforts would be even more invisible than before.
But, how wrong we were! Instead, every day, about once an hour or two, a crew member circles the floor guiding two large barrels on wheels. He/she moves from bin to bin, emptying them into the barrels, often blocking foot traffic or requiring us to steer clear of the barrels in order to avoid collision or crush because – in a startling reversal – we are invisible to the trash crew!
Moreover, they seem particularly adept at knowing the most inconvenient time to attend to these tasks. For example, we have two big trash bins in our break room which measures about 20 by 10 feet and houses a soda machine, large water cooler, refrigerator, sink, microwave, broiler, a large table, a sofa, etc. Before and during the lunch hour, this is probably the most trafficked real estate on the floor. But, invariably, this is also the time that one of the janitors will unapologetically push her way in with the two big barrels and start emptying the trash (which we have only begun to fill). It matters not that your soup is boiling over in the microwave . . . you will have to wait to get anywhere close to the appliance because large trash barrels will be planted between you and your lunch (or what’s left of it) until she is finished.
The bathroom crew is even more finely attuned to inconvenience. They don’t come by once a day, but continually, throughout the work day. I’m not sure how many times a day the bathrooms get their attention, but it seems that my bathroom needs coincide with the cleaning needs so we often encounter each other about once an hour or so. If I happen to miss them, I’ll be reminded they were just there by the upraised toilet seat, which used to give me a momentary start of “man alert!” until I got used to the midday toilet scrubs.
The intensity of care for our bathrooms is a bit mind-boggling. Unlike users in the bathrooms of shopping malls or other public place where constant attention is necessary, we are a pretty clean group, speaking, at least, for the women among us. We manage to keep water in the sink and properly dispose of our trash and “sanitary things.” And speaking of those things, that’s not even much of an issue since I’d venture to say that the vast majority of us on our floor are post-menopausal. The bathroom’s tampon machine, for instance, has been out of order for years and I’ve never heard anyone complain .
But the height of inconvenience occurs around the 5:00 hour, just as everyone is trekking to the bathroom for one last pit stop before getting on the road. Apparently, this peak 4:30-5:30 time slot is when the crew believes a good mopping is required. I have even been sitting on the toilet while the woman janitor thrusts her tentacled mop under the door directly toward my feet, barely missing them as I pull back in surprise. If you suffer from even a slightly distractible bladder, wondering whether or not she’ll come in with further swipes does not encourage that organ to continue with its task.
Did I mention that none of the crew speak English . . . or Spanish. . . or any Western language? All communication consists of pantomime or little shrieks expressing alarm. And, speaking of alarm, I’ve been told by male office workers that when the male janitor is unavailable, the woman janitor walks blithely into the men’s bathroom while it’s in active use, apparently unconcerned about any male privacy issues. I’m unaware if our menfolk actually shriek of whether her presence has any affect on their bladder performance.
And the issue of the vacuuming and dusting function is impossible to ignore. We have learned to tolerate these activities beginning at 5:00, even while many of us work a staggered schedule involving 5:30, 6:00, or 6:30 departure times. But at times, this assiduous cleaning crew has attempted to move up the vacuuming/dusting hour to 4:00, which in addition to all the noise, involves the snaking of long extension cords along the length of the floor (at least half a city block) and the raising of powdered dust with a duster. The janitors seem completely oblivious to the fact that lawyers and support staff are still trying to work, meet deadlines, and keep their allergies in check. Although they’ve been shooed off (by head shaking, hand waving, and watch tapping) at 4:00, they will invariably find their way back at 5:00 to bedevil us some more. Fortunate for us, vacuuming only occurs once every two weeks or so. Unfortunately, we will probably have to all chip in for an office vacuum for the interim between these sessions.
And by the way, we’ve have complained to the building manager about the 4:00 vacuuming and the wet bathroom floors at 5:00. He explains it as their attempt to try to finish earlier. Whatever the case, he has spoken with the company and they now wait to mop the bathroom between 6:00 and 6:30, although they still try to wet down the break room floor about 4:30. But what’s up with their failure to put up “wet floor” caution signs? At least one person reports that she has walked into the break room and found her foot skating out from under her.
As strange as this all is, I can’t help but believe there may be some other goal – one other than cost-savings. Could it be designed to aggravate employees so much that they voluntarily choose to leave their jobs to find one where trash receptacles get emptied magically at night and the dust has settled before the sun rises?
If so, I have news for the budget folks. We are a sturdy lot, having long suffered the low pay, indignities, and lack of appreciation that government employees have to endure. Interfering with our toilet activities and placing us in danger of tripping on extension cords, wiping out on wet floors, and risking collision with the rolling trash barrels is not enough. We will survive all that — even while we remember fondly the days when our waste baskets were magically emptied as we slept and we saw clean floors every morning. In short, we can manage with the cleaning inconveniences in the office. Just don’t get me started on the parking issues.