Members of the Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals protest high workloads outside a school board meeting Tuesday, May 11, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The custodians who clean Salem’s schools say they're overworked and understaffed.

The district’s classified employee union, the Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals, objected to what they described as dangerously low staffing levels for custodians and high turnover in the department due to “workplace bullying” and managerial issues.

About 70 members of the union gathered outside a school board meeting Tuesday night to voice their concerns. A second protest by Latinos Unidos Siempre took place at the same time.

Jeff Jabin, the union’s vice president and a lead custodian who has worked at the district for 18 years said issues have persisted for years but grown worse recently as schools have resumed in-person classes with more cleaning required under Covid protocols.

He said last week, the district had 173 hours of custodial work in a single day that couldn't be covered during regular work hours, about 20 full shifts. That meant the district offered 173 hours of overtime to employees.

Union leaders said custodians are being asked to work double shifts daily. Rita Glass, the union president, said one custodian reported working 33 hours in two days last week.

“Covid has brought it to a crisis level,” Glass said.

In response, the district’s chief operating officer, Mike Wolfe, did not dispute the union’s overtime figures but said an external investigation had found the union’s accusations of bullying and mismanagement were “totally unsubstantiated.”

Wolfe said the district employ 187 full-time custodians, with a substitute pool of 16 active custodians.

The district began that investigation in early February due to a "confidential personnel issue" and completed it April 7, district spokesman Aaron Harada said. He said the district could not provide Salem Reporter with a copy of that evaluation because it was attorney-client privileged.

Wolfe said overtime costs for the year have averaged $500 per month for custodians, though that includes many months when schools were largely closed to in-person activities. He said the amount has increased since schools returned to in-person lessons. Working overtime is always voluntary, he said.

“Supporting the hybrid instructional model has created a higher demand for services and has driven the up operational costs as has the much higher absentee rate among custodians,” Wolfe said in an email. He said the current vacancy of 10 permanent custodian positions is not uncommon.

“We have tried on numerous occasions to work with ASKESP leadership on a number of issues that we believe would benefit all of their members and continue to do so,” Wolfe wrote.

Glass said the union intends to form a task force to examine the issue of workplace bullying across the district.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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