Some maintenance workers who aren’t fluent in English have faced communication lapses that have caused high stress and anxiety. (Illustration by Lily Ogburn)
Some maintenance workers who aren’t fluent in English have faced communication lapses that have caused high stress and anxiety.

Illustration by Lily Ogburn

‘We are suffering too much’: Maintenance technicians report overwork, retaliation from Northwestern supervisors

April 27, 2023

Content warning: This story includes mentions of workplace abuse and racism.

Two names have been changed in this story to protect the safety of workers who are currently employed. Both workers requested anonymity because they wanted to protect themselves against further retaliation from their supervisors. These sources will be indicated with an asterisk next to their name on first mention. Quotes from Rojas and Daisy* were translated from Spanish. Some quotes from Christina* were also translated. 

When now-retired Northwestern Maintenance Technician Maria Rojas worked for Residential Services, she struggled to take cleaning supplies up multiple flights of stairs and lift heavy boxes. 

But when she raised concerns to her supervisors, they told her upper management would not provide any additional help. 

Rojas, who is 66, worked on the maintenance team for about 10 years before retiring in March 2022. As an older worker, she said she physically could not complete tasks like cleaning windows, but her supervisors told her she needed to provide medical documentation to prove it. By the time Rojas left NU, she felt “really tired and exhausted,” and said the work had become “too much” for her. 

“(When I went to clean) in 630 Emerson, it was horrible,” Rojas said. “I needed help because I was older and carrying boxes to the third floor. When I cleaned the floors, (my supervisor) would tell me that it was ‘alright.’ But it was so clean, and they did not value my hard work.” 

Like Rojas, some other current and former maintenance technicians at NU have reported being overworked, verbally abused and facing retaliation from supervisors for speaking up about concerns they had. 

Technicians provide custodial services in residential halls on campus. They clean common spaces like bathrooms, lounges and kitchens, and replace lights. At the start of each academic year, Residential Services randomly assigns technicians to clean certain parts or floors of residence halls on campus.

University spokesperson Hilary Hurd Anyaso said Residential Services is exploring using factors like square footage, fixtures and the type of amenities in a space to distribute work evenly among technicians in the future. 

Christina*, a current Maintenance Technician, said the current division of labor is not equitable. She said some spaces are easier to clean because they are less frequented than others. Other spaces might have more appliances, which makes them more frustrating to clean than an empty room of a similar size, she added.   

Favoritism toward certain workers also affects work assignments, Christina said. She added that during her time working at NU, the maintenance team has been “regularly” understaffed. 

When some employees could not finish cleaning their assigned areas, workers who supervisors dislike often have additional work added to their plates. She said this favoritism is applied arbitrarily. 

Though all workers have eight-hour shifts, Christina said those who perform well are often asked to help colleagues or take on additional cleaning duties. As one of these workers, she said this increases her workload to a point where she can barely complete it. Additionally, supervisors punish workers by increasing their assignments, she said. 

“Respect us as employees, or like equals,” the worker said. “At the end of the day, (our supervisors) are going by preference. For me, that’s discrimination.” 

Anyaso said supervisors do not increase technicians’ workload unless another co-worker takes a vacation or calls off work. She added staff should report their concerns directly to their supervisors or through EthicsPoint, a confidential reporting tool. 

“Student Affairs and Residential Services are committed to creating positive work environments for maintenance technicians, as their work is essential and incredibly valued across the University,” Anyaso said. “Northwestern policy strictly prohibits retaliation.” 

But Christina and Rojas both said they have experienced retaliation from supervisors. 

In instances where Christina has spoken to supervisors about her concerns with shouldering additional work, she said they have doubled her workload and refused to provide her additional help to complete extra assignments. Other times, she said supervisors have given “condescending” responses, telling her the work is “just eight hours.”  

“If I see something they are doing wrong, they will take it bad,” she said. “They have retaliated against me various times. You can’t say anything because (the retaliation) is heavy and it (gets) worse.” 

Rojas said her direct supervisors embarrassed her multiple times during staff meetings. One of her fellow co-workers, who retired early, had to go to therapy because the high levels of stress she faced at work caused her to think she was “crazy.” Rojas added she has seen workers burst into tears in front of their supervisors. 

Supervisors she worked under created a culture of fear, she said.

“(My supervisor) told us explicitly, ‘If you have evidence of accusations of me, tell me. If not, be quiet,’” Rojas said. “How can we go to a supervisor if they do nothing for us? Sometimes we do feel intimidated.” 

When both workers would try reporting discrimination to the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance, formerly the Office of Equity, Christina said HR would just circle back to supervisors about worker complaints, which defeated the purpose of reporting. 

Latine workers who are not fluent in English face additional racial and linguistic discrimination from their supervisors, according to Daisy*, also a current Maintenance Technician. She said language barriers cause lapses in communication between her and her supervisors, leading to misunderstandings about which spaces she needed to clean. At times, these misinterpretations have caused her to do “double the work,” she said.

Navigating language barriers has also caused high stress and anxiety, Daisy said. Managers think workers who don’t complete their assigned tasks are “incapable” when in reality, she said some just don’t understand what’s being asked of them. 

“To the Hispanics who are most available for work, they give us more work,” she said. “Other people of other races can defend themselves. They speak English. But we’re the victims because we don’t speak English.” 

Anyaso said supervisors conduct all staff meetings in English and Spanish. She said Residential Services uses a local translation service to communicate written statements. 

The workers said the high-stress environment has already caused many workers to quit their positions, and the current workers said they felt overwhelmed by their work loads. 

“​​I can be in my home and I can be really happy and feel good,” Daisy said. “But as soon as I think about working, I just feel a knot in my stomach and I feel like I can no longer go through and work under those conditions.” 

After failing to get their supervisors to listen to them, some maintenance staff turned to Students Organizing for Labor Rights, an NU student organization advocating for better treatment of campus workers. 

SESP senior and SOLR member Neva Legallet said students have an “outsized voice” on campus and can help keep the University accountable. On March 10, the organization delivered a petition to the University, calling on NU administrators to take action and address demands from workers after hearing about what maintenance technicians are experiencing. The petition’s demands included addressing discrimination, excessive workloads and short staffing on the maintenance team.

“The day I came to SOLR I cried,” Christina said. “I was at the point of quitting my job.” 

After SOLR sent the petition to the University, all maintenance technicians on campus received a dollar raise in their hourly salary, making their base pay $17.50. Christina said she felt the raise was given to “silence” her and her colleagues. 

Weinberg sophomore and SOLR member Jennifer Salvador said the organization has reached out to the University three times in the last few weeks to try and arrange a meeting to discuss maintenance technicians’ concerns. SOLR has not heard back, Salvador said. 

“(The University’s) response is very inadequate because this is very urgent and it seems they still do not care about what is going on,” Salvador said. “The raise is a very specific way to shut (maintenance technicians) up. They haven’t responded because they don’t want further questions from us.” 

Anyaso said the University’s delay in communication with SOLR is unintentional, and Residential Services should reach out to the group soon to set up a meeting. She added the wage increase was not related to the petition. Residential Services began conducting annual market analyses on maintenance technician pay in 2022, she said, and the 2023 analysis resulted in a wage increase implemented in early April. 

All three workers said they hope the University will start treating them with respect and dignity. This includes raising wages to about $22 an hour, standardizing salaries and wages, and eliminating favoritism. 

“The reality is that it’s ugly. It’s horrible,” Daisy said. “We are suffering too much for what they are paying.” 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @joannah_11

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