‘Unsung heroes’ work behind the scenes during coronavirus crisis

When a lightbulb burns out or a toilet stops up or a foot of snow blankets the campus, a team of campus workers jumps into action. But the custodians and grounds workers and others who work in the background of the university rarely get recognition.

“They are a lot of unsung heroes who don’t often get much praise for the work they do,” said Geoff Hurtado, associate vice chancellor for Facilities Planning and Management (FPM).

But in recent weeks, these workers have gone above and beyond. Even as the coronavirus outbreak began to explode, workers were deep-cleaning buildings and trying to keep offices and common areas as clean as possible.

Then, when the campus closed, teams from facilities and environmental services went into high gear.

Housing called on FPM to assist with the quick move-out of the 800-bed Cambridge Commons and 400-bed RiverView residence halls the week of March 23, Hurtado said. They had the added pressure of relocating some students to other residence halls. And they faced the added pressure of having to deep clean the halls in case the state requested the use of a building.

Packing up

Adding to the challenge was the fact that some students weren’t able to get back to campus to remove their belongings. Workers rushed to help up pack up belongings, build safe storage areas for them and move them over to USRB, the University Services and Research Building.

Said Hurtado: “I am so proud to say that FPM responded admirably, and in the words of Beth Lobner (assistant director of residence life) from Housing, ‘We couldn’t have met the deadline without all the hard-working people from FPM.’”

According to Hurtado, Lobner “gave special praise for service above and beyond the call of duty to Steve Wilke, whose calm demeanor and professionalism kept the pack-up and move-out flowing as smoothly as possible, to Brian Harness for his can-do attitude, and to Mike Maass, Rob Wahl and Mike Proell who came in on the weekend, worked long days and took on the most difficult cleaning challenges.”

The workers found themselves empathizing with the families and students.

“One thing that stood out to me as I was outside taking a break – I could see the look of uncertainty on many of the faces of both parents and students as they were moving out,” said Maass, custodian and president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 82. “That is when it really hit me that these were uncharted waters for us all.”

“No job that big is without glitches,” he added, “but we worked together to keep it minimal. What kept me going through all of this was knowing that everyone involved came together for a common cause in a time of crisis.”

‘The least we could do’

The challenging circumstances were not without worries. “As people are being instructed nationwide to practice distancing, we’re all coming together in these two buildings,” said Wilke, grounds supervisor.  “After consideration, though, I realized that the environmental service workers were already experiencing this daily as they performed cleaning duties in buildings throughout campus.  So, it was the least we could do to help do our part in getting these dorms emptied.

“It did seem a little surreal packing up rooms where it was obvious that students had left for spring break with every intention of expecting to come back in a few weeks,” he added. “But everyone was professional and careful when boxing up items. It was hectic and frustrating at times, but with everyone working together, we got it done.”

Waukesha and Washington County too

Custodians and maintenance workers at the Washington County and Waukesha campuses have also gone beyond their normal responsibilities, said Christi Larson, custodial services supervisor.

In Washington County, Paula Unger, a custodian, is distributing the mail and Timothy Steffan of maintenance is taking care of the plants in the greenhouse and also coordinating the pickup of mail when bills need to be paid. At Waukesha, Mike Nicholson and Roger Ulrich of maintenance have been collecting mail and coordinating pickup.

“All of the ‘essential workers’ who are still on campus have done an amazing job disinfecting daily and ensuring that the campus is a properly functioning, safe environment during this time,” Larson said.

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