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 (“TFC”) is saving money on the state’s new 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 TFC found a cheaper alternative for these services. One part involved a new and less costly contract crew. The other part was the induction of office workers into a trash collection crew. We were made responsible for emptying our own office waste baskets, for which purpose we were issued a spiffy blue container for recycling, and a tiny black one for regular trash. We were instructed to empty these into their respective larger collection bins situated in various places on the floor. The contracted trash crew would come by periodically and empty the bins, but, as part of the new deal, they would no longer vacuum and dust every evening — just once every two weeks. Hearing all this, we assumed that the janitorial efforts would be even more invisible than before.
Wrong! Instead of the overnight trash collection, during the day, about once an hour or two, the trash crew detail circles the floor, guiding two large barrels on wheels. He/she moves from collection bin to collection bin, emptying them into the barrels, often blocking foot traffic or requiring us to steer clear of the barrels in order to avoid collision 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 (one for each type of trash) 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. Instead of a once-a-day visit, they come by, it seems, continually throughout the work day. I’m not sure how many times a day the bathrooms get cleaning attention, but it seems that my bathroom needs coincide with that attention so I often encounter the bathroom squad about once an hour or so. If I happen to miss them, I’ll be reminded of their recent departure 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 places where constant attention is necessary, we women, at least, are a pretty clean group (lawyers, paralegals and secretaries). We manage to keep water in the sink, hit the target from our seated position, and properly dispose of our trash and “sanitary things.” And speaking of those products, that’s not even much of an issue since I’d venture to say that the 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 about it.
But the height of bathroom 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 distractable bladder, wondering whether or not she’ll come in with further swipes does not encourage that organ to get on 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 of whether our menfolk actually shriek or whether an unannounced female 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 with 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 their long-handled dusters. It doesn’t seem to matter that lawyers and support staff are still trying to work, meet deadlines, and keep their allergies in check. Although the crew members have 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. Fortunately, vacuuming only occurs once every two weeks or so. Unfortunately, we will probably have to chip in for an office vacuum to meet any needs we have before they come back.
As you would expect from a group of lawyers, we’ve complained to the building manager about the 4:00 vacuuming and the wet bathroom floors at 5:00. He believes that crew members just want to finish earlier and get home (or to their next job), but 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 couldn’t they put up some “wet floor” caution signs? At least one person reports her foot skating out from under her upon entering the break room, unaware of the mopping.
As strange as this all is, I can’t help but believe there may be some other goal – one other than cost-savings of janitorial services. Could it be designed to reduce personnel by aggravating employees so much that they voluntarily choose to leave and find jobs without trash collection duties and offices where 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 and floors made to sparkle as we slept. In short, we can manage with the cleaning inconveniences in the office. Just don’t get me started on the parking issues.