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Fighting COVID-19 on Mostly Empty Campus, Harvard Custodians Voice Anxieties Over Health and Safety

Eliot House is one of the several houses students are living in after most affiliates moved off campus.
Eliot House is one of the several houses students are living in after most affiliates moved off campus. By Aiyana G. White
By Davit Antonyan, Crimson Staff Writer

When Harvard told affiliates to vacate campus last month to mitigate coronavirus spread, the University’s custodians were among the few who stayed behind, reporting to work to clean and sanitize University buildings.

But some members of the custodial staff who still remain on the nearly empty campus say Harvard has left them ill-prepared on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifty-two Harvard affiliates have tested positive for COVID-19 — among them multiple Harvard custodians, according to Roxana Rivera, the vice president of branch 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which represents custodial staff.

“Some cleaners have tested positive for the virus, underscoring why it is so important that Harvard continue to work with us to protect frontline workers,” Rivera wrote in an emailed statement.

In recent weeks, Harvard’s support for employees during the pandemic has come under scrutiny, with security guards and dining workers raising concerns over the University’s emergency pay and benefits system. On Friday afternoon, Harvard guaranteed regular compensation and benefits through May 28 to all University employees who cannot perform their regular job duties.

Many Harvard custodians have not faced work stoppages, and some say they lack access to proper personal protective equipment — putting them at risk of catching the virus.

Custodian Doris Reina-Landaverde told NBC News last week that she started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms after the custodial staff’s supply of personal protective equipment ran out.

Maren R. Ceja, a custodian who works at William James Hall, said in an interview with The Crimson that she and her coworkers have also been repeatedly denied proper safety equipment.

“When I saw Doris's story on Twitter, that's when we kind of were like, okay, we're not the only ones that feel these frustrations of how they're dealing with everything,” she said. “When everything started, nothing was really said, no masks were given to us to protect us. The supervisor was very nonchalant with everything.”

Ceja said she approached her manager and asked him to purchase extra supplies. She felt his response was indifferent and dismissive.

“He just said, you know what, as custodians, that's just a risk that you'll have to take,” Ceja said. “They just treat us like we're disposable — they don't care about us, about our health.”

The supervisor, Carlos D. Vielmann, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ceja’s sister — Stephanie Velasquez-Ceja, another custodian at William James Hall — said she felt anxious about the situation.

“It kind of gave me an anxiety attack,” she said. “Everybody was leaving, and they were going to close the building, nobody else was going to come in. Why not just let it disinfect and leave? They’re just keeping us there until more and more people start showing symptoms.”

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard gives each custodian “appropriate” personal protective equipment, including nitrile gloves, to perform their cleaning and disinfection duties. When Harvard receives a request for cleaning in a space where a person has been sick with any type of illness, the custodians also receive face masks, goggles, and other equipment, according to Newton.

Newton added that custodians receive training on how to properly put on and take off the equipment and on how to safely clean facilities where coronavirus may be present and that the University’s protocols are in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

“Our custodial management team is also conducting regular reviews of how our workplace policies are being implemented to identify any potential issues,” Newton wrote. “We want all custodians to know that if they have any concerns about COVID-19, they can discuss their situation with their supervisor or Harvard Human Resources.”

Alex Cruz, a custodian at Northwest Labs, said that since the pandemic began, his duties have been reduced from cleaning entire buildings to wiping down bathrooms. He also said that after he was moved to a new building without receiving ID card access to it, he had to work in close proximity with a colleague, despite federal guidelines encouraging social distancing.

“I can't get in the building, I can't access any elevators, I can't even clean any of my areas — I have to work with somebody else because I need them to open doors for me,” Cruz said.

According to the University’s advanced sick leave policy, if custodians choose to take time off for COVID-19-related concerns, they must use their own personal sick time, or in the event that they do not have enough, they may use up to 14 unearned sick days.

Cruz said because he is a relatively new hire at the University, he is hesitant to use his limited sick time.

“Some of us are new with no sick time, some of us can’t afford to lose sick time as they were meant for something else. If we don't show up we have been threatened with being fired,” he wrote in an email.

Rivera wrote that the union remains “in frequent contact” with its members as well as Harvard administrators to ensure supervisors are protecting workers’ health and safety and the University “rolls out its leave policy in the fairest and safest way possible.”

“Every time our members raise concerns, we investigate and expect Harvard to make any necessary improvements in their policies, safety protocols, and worker protections,” Rivera wrote.

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at

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