Over 75 students attended Wednesday night’s “When The Campus is Asleep: Voices of Female Custodians Who Work the Night Shift at Stanford” event, which featured a conversation with four female custodians from United Service Workers West, a subdivision of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU-USWW).
The custodians gave up their only break during their eight hour-long night shift, which starts at 6 p.m. and ends at 2:30 a.m. each night, to voice their demands for better work conditions at the event.
The meeting, co-hosted by the Stanford Solidarity Network (SSN), took place in the Women’s Community Center. Rebecca Armendariz, political representative for SEIU-SSW, served as translator between the Spanish-speaking custodians and the audience.
Armendariz clarified that the custodians are not managed directly by the University. Rather, Stanford has subcontracted the work to a company called UG2, which provides janitorial services on campus. Because these women are prohibited by their UG2 supervisors from interacting with Stanford students, they requested anonymity in this article.
“A lot of workers’ hands are tied because of their work,” Armendariz said. “Their management can sometimes imply threats against them and blacklist them, so we want to make sure that the workers are protected and that the students aren’t doing things that put them in any trouble.”
Armendariz added that nearly 70 percent of night shift custodians nationwide are women, especially newly immigrated women with little knowledge of the English language and American culture.
“When she arrived as an immigrant woman, she had an innocence about her and didn’t know what the culture was like,” Armendariz said, translating on behalf of one of the custodians present. “She didn’t know that she ran so much risk of being harassed or abused at work.”
Chloe Stoddard ’21, a student activist who was present at the meeting, said she had noticed that even before the meeting, female custodians were especially vulnerable on Stanford’s campus at night.
“One day I was walking out of the law school, and it was really late, and I saw this woman taking out the trash wearing a UG2 uniform,” Stoddard said. “We smiled at each other, but my heart was breaking because it was really, really late, and she was all alone.”
At the event, the four workers demanded that the University make efforts to ensure their safety during the night shift. They described small measures that could be immediately implemented, such as placing trash bins closer to back doors and providing better lighting in outdoor trash areas. They also requested that the trash areas be enclosed, as many workers have encountered animals or homeless people jumping towards them late at night.
“The University is responsible for its contractors,” Armendariz said. “When Stanford says [to] give [workers] better benefits, those companies are going to bend over backwards because it’s Stanford University. So it’s up to the University to do something to make the lives of these workers better.”
As for mental well-being, the women added that working in groups would allow them to look out for each other and feel more secure working so late at night.
“They feel very isolated and unsafe when working alone … going from building to building is very intimidating,” Armendariz translated on behalf of the workers.
Armendariz further added that UG2 should consolidate the women’s cleaning routes because they are often overburdened by work, which forces them to run between buildings to complete all their tasks.
The women also mentioned that their managers had recently changed their assignments so that men were cleaning indoors while women were sent outside to clean public restrooms. While they said they have “nothing against the men,” the custodians questioned why management would leave them vulnerable, especially given their numerous encounters with strangers — often inebriated — hiding in the restrooms.
“Because of our activism, supervisors tend to dislike us and play favorites,” Armendariz translated for one of the women present. “They give us the harder shift, the farther route and buildings.”
Justine Modica, a leader from SSN and third-year Ph.D student, noted that Stanford Student and Labor Alliance, a student group that focuses on workers’ rights advocacy, has historically supported campus workers by disseminating information, helping organize petitions and sending emails to UG2 management. According to fellow SSN leader and fifth-year Ph.D student Vivek Narayan, the next step to bringing about change for women on the night shift is drafting a list of concerns based on what the women voiced at the event.
“We want this to be driven by the workers themselves,” Modica said. “Tonight was a critical first step because we got to hear the voices of workers themselves … Our next steps are going to be dictated by what they think are the most important things students can be doing for them.”
Stoddard agreed, expressing her hope that Stanford enacts change to address the concerns raised by the workers.
“Out of all the populations in the U.S., one of the most vulnerable is the immigrant women who work these jobs because companies think they can intimidate them and silence them,” Stoddard stated. “I really hope those things can change and that we can be a model for other universities around the country as well.”