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The Value of Manual Labor

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The Value of Manual Labor


Beep, beep, beep, smack. You wish you could hit the snooze button on your alarm because it’s 5 o’clock on a Monday morning. Part of you wants to sleep a few more hours, but the other part tells you it’s time to go to work. You eat breakfast, kiss your family goodbye, and arrive at the University campus in time to start your shift at 7 a.m. After seeing the friendly faces of your co-workers and friends on staff, you think to yourself, “Maybe today won’t be so bad after all.”

Your mood changes when you see the mess that has been accumulating in the bathrooms over the weekend. Once you’ve opened the door, you grimace as you are taken aback by a familiar stench which you’ve come to recognize as a combination of alcohol, vomit, urine, and smelly garbage. The trash bag looks nearly empty, as it appears that most of the trash never made it there. In the girls’ bathrooms, the feminine disposals are overflowing, and there is hair all over the floor and in the showers. In the boys’ bathrooms, the showerheads are missing, the drains are clogged, and you sigh as you dread looking into the bathroom stalls. Sure enough, one toilet is completely clogged, another one is plastered with vomit, most likely from someone’s poor decision to drink the night before, and the floor of the third stall is covered with wet toilet paper, a mess that you’re not surprised to find after looking in the first two stalls.

What seems like hours later, once the bathrooms are spotless again, students begin to come in to use the showers and restrooms, unaware of the mess that was there a few hours earlier. The students have failed to realize the mess that was left, because they have taken for granted that the bathrooms will be clean when they use them. As the students shower, you return to the utility closet to grab the tools you need for your next chore. You are stunned when you read the obscene message a student left for you on your dry erase board. You feel like this is a slap in the face after you just spent your whole morning cleaning up their messes.

Though this description is hypothetical, these events are based on stories told by JMU housekeeping employees. This is what our housekeeping staff goes through on a regular basis, and many students are not aware of the work being done to make their living environment a more comfortable place. Dormitory bathrooms may seem trivial, but this example is part of a larger and more critical issue being, how much do we, as a society, value manual labor? How much do we appreciate the people who clean up after us working for minimum wage? The question is, how eager would you be to spend hours cleaning up after college students? Usually there are not many volunteers. If you were paid an adequate salary, then you may be more willing to perform these everyday jobs, but how much money would it take?

Our research team randomly surveyed students concerning the treatment of housekeeping staff members. The majority of these students are of the opinion that these employees are not treated fairly and are often taken for granted (Student Survey). We asked the students if they knew of any times when the housekeeping staff had to clean up something disgusting or perform an unfair job. One student responded, “Many smokers live in our dorms, and instead of putting their cigarette butts in the ‘butt disposal pales’, they leave them all over the ground for the housekeeping crew to sweep up. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but it gives the housekeepers more work to do. Instead of just emptying the pales, they also have to sweep up the courtyard” (Anonymous Student). We asked the same question to a Resident Advisor Nick Dzendzel and he stated, “When an intoxicated student cut down two small trees in the courtyard, the housekeepers had to take care of that problem and plant new ones. It’s a lack of respect towards the employees, and it also produces more work that they didn’t have to do in the first place.”

Our next step was to interview some of the workers from the housekeeping staff to see exactly what they go through. Our first question was, “What have been the worst experiences in your job?” One woman replied, “Cleaning puke mostly, and in the guy’s bathroom, when they don’t always flush their toilets. Last year in this dorm, Hanson Hall, someone threw nacho cheese sauce all over the walls and ceilings of the kitchen and left it over the weekend. It happened again with cake mix and flour” (Anonymous Housekeeper). Some students say that it is the housekeeping crews’ jobs to clean up messes (Student Survey). Yes, they are hired to clean up messes, but not to this extreme amount. It is prevalent that these incidents cross the line between ordinary clutter and excessive chaos.

We feel that there is a lack of appreciation and respect for our JMU housekeeping staff, and that it is a severe problem. This lack of gratitude is based on many underlying issues. One of the most obvious factors in why we believe they are unappreciated is that they are underpaid. Though this does not show a lack of appreciation from students, it does reflect upon those who pay their salaries. One JMU housekeeper commented on the issue, “Sometimes we feel like we’re given too much work for our salary. It’s a give-and-take kind of job. Some days it’s less and some days it’s more” (Anonymous Housekeeper). Most students would probably feel shocked to learn just how little these valuable workers are paid. In every student survey, predictions were made that housekeeping salaries were higher than in actuality, ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 per year (Student Survey). The fact is, housekeeping workers earn just over $16,000 per year (JMU: Housekeeping). Learning this fact left us in a state of bewilderment and also wondering if someone can actually “make a living” earning this amount of money.

The debate over minimum wage has been a controversial issue in our society for years. This problem has prompted many states to impose minimum wage laws, but some still have not. Most states employ the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, including Virginia, but some states have made adjustments to this value. Kansas, for example, only pays $2.65 an hour as minimum wage and Alaska pays as high as $7.10 an hour (U.S. Department of Labor).

The JMU housekeeping staff makes just over the federal minimum. Though this salary may be appropriate for a teenager with a summer job, it can’t possibly be enough for an adult trying to support a family. Dealing more with the underpayment of the housekeeping staff here at JMU, we researched the different price ranges for the various levels of housekeeping services.

Manual labor house-workers, the people you see sweeping and cleaning from day to day, have to be able to perform a variety of housekeeping tasks, stand for extended periods of time, and operate waxers, scrubbers, and buffers (JMU: Housekeeping). Their bosses, the Housekeeping Team Leaders, also get paid inadequately. They receive a salary that starts off at just $17,571. These workers have to be full-time employees and have a knowledge of cleaning methods including: safety practices, how to work different machinery, and chemicals. They also have to be able to supervise smaller groups of the housekeeping staff (JMU: Housekeeping Team Leaders).

The head Housekeeping Supervisor Seniors here at JMU also receive a poor salary of up to $23,000 a year. They have to oversee the safety, sanitation, and cleanliness of many of the university buildings on campus. They must also supervise the cleaning activities for all housekeeping staff workers, assuring that policies are being followed according to contract. They also monitor the performances of the workers, and make sure that a pleasant, friendly atmosphere is being presented (JMU: Housekeeping Supervisor Senior).

This problem of housekeeping staffs’ inadequate salaries is not only an issue at JMU, or even just in the state of Virginia, but throughout the whole United States. One of the country’s most prestigious universities, Yale University, has experienced this problem on a much larger scale, when over 2,000 technical, housekeeping, dining, and maintenance employees went on strike, demanding better pension plans and salaries. Alexis Flint, a 24-year employee of Yale University, states, "Our pensions would lead me into poverty when I retire. If I retire after 30 years, my pension would be just $750 a month” (Yale’s Labor Troubles). Their strike began on move-in day in August 2003 and lasted for three weeks. They are now in the process of settling a contract to resolve the issues at hand.

People may not realize the value of manual labor and the jobs these people perform until they are forced to live without their services. The Yale Strikes had disastrous effects on the entire school community. Having to live without the everyday luxuries we have come to expect makes it hard on the students, because not only do they have to worry about classes, but suddenly where they will eat as well. It causes chaos all over campus with understaffed employees, and there is no certainty that the students will have access to all the facilities that have been guaranteed to them in their tuition. Not only were employees striking against pension plans and salaries, but complaints were also made by angry students about being deprived of cleaning and dining services that were promised to them (Yale’s Labor Troubles).

These problems may seem distant, but if we don’t make changes, it is very possible that these problems could plague University in the near future. It could happen at JMU if the students and even faculty continue to undervalue our housekeeping staff.

Students attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln realize how important it is to treat housekeepers with courtesy and respect, and honor them every year by celebrating International Housekeeping Appreciation Week. Events such as a meet-and-greet the housekeeping, a safety-training seminar, and a free barbeque take place to recognize their 250 employees in housekeeping. According to Greg Maguire, assistant director of housing for environment services, “Students show their appreciation by posting signs and making a special point to say thanks,” which goes a long way with the staff. "It really helps motivation," he said. "Their supervisor, or me, or the housing director can tell them they are doing a good job, but if a student says it, it has more impact than if I say it 10 times" (Weaver).

If the students and faculty of James Madison University would introduce activities such as those at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, perhaps our situation would accommodate more of our community on campus. It is astounding how a little bit of appreciation can stretch so far. A simple “Hello” and “How are you doing” or a “Thank-you” can mean the world to someone who doesn’t hear it often enough. It can take what started as a crummy or typical day to one that is cheerful and gratifying. Imagine if you were the housekeeper who walked back to your broom closet and found the obscene message left foryou. What a difference it would have made if someone had written, “Thank you for taking care of us” instead!

Our student survey also found that most students do very little to help the housekeeping staff with their jobs. Most were of the opinion that students do not make their jobs easier. When asked if they made an effort to help clean up messes around them, many students admitted that they do not. Though they may make an attempt to clean their own mess, one student stated that they would probably not pick somebody else’s trash up that they saw lying around (Student Survey).

One of the most shocking experiences we learned about from the housekeeping staff themselves is that there have been times when they have had to hand-pick paper towels out of the bathroom trash in some dorms so that they can be recycled. This is a very time consuming task that could easily be avoided. The reason this is a problem is perhaps because the students have not been informed that the paper towels are to be recycled. The students surveyed were shocked to learn of this. One student commented, “That is really horrible. They should tell us to recycle them” (Anonymous Student). Most said that they would make an effort to recycle the paper towels on their own, if they were only informed of the problem. Another student even said, “Why don’t they make us do it for them?” It seems that students would be more than willing to recycle their paper towels if they were only told to (Student Survey). An easy way to make the housekeeping staff’s job easier on a daily basis would be to simply put a separate trash bag for paper towels in the bathrooms.

Experiences such as this one also happen to other minimum wage employees at JMU. It seems that college students simply do not value manual labor. The housekeeping, dining, janitorial, and yard maintenance staffs have all been mistreated in one way or another. One of the housekeeping employees of JMU, who formerly worked as a yard maintenance employee, shared a personal story from his experiences in maintenance that truly exemplifies the horrendous lack of respect that he and other workers deal with on a daily basis.

He explained that when it snows, it is the duty of the yard maintenance staff to shovel the snow on campus at any hour that their services are required. In some cases, this could even be two o’clock in the morning. On one particular day when he and his coworkers were shoveling snow, students began to throw snowballs at them while they worked (Housekeeping Survey). The fact that any student could have the audacity to do something like this is truly appalling. There is no greater sign of disrespect than to harass the men and women who are working hard in the freezing snow just to make the sidewalks safe and snow-free for students. If this job were not done, there is no telling how many accidents could take place from students slipping on the snow and ice. Students really need to begin to realize that the work these people do is of vast importance and not to be taken for granted.

We propose to show more gratitude for all service employees here at JMU. There are many ways of doing this. One idea is to set aside a week to honor all of these valuable workers. Making posters and banners to display our appreciation around campus would be easy to do, and would show a great deal of thanks to all of these employees. Wearing ribbons has been effective in showing support for causes such as breast cancer and showing spirit during homecoming week, therefore this same idea could be applied to demonstrating appreciation and gratitude to the minimum wage employees here at JMU. The student government, resident advisors, or even fraternities and sororities could hand out ribbons in the commons area of campus. This would increase the awareness in students of what all minimum wage employees do and also honor them with a few days of special treatment that would hopefully last throughout the rest of the school year. Specifically for the housekeeping employees, festivities could include department heads pitching in and washing the windows and a party for housekeeping attended by staff and students.

An additional way we can express our appreciation for the services of these JMU employees is to increase their salary. Producing the funding necessary to accommodate this project could be made possible by decreasing the amount of unnecessary spending on campus. For example, in one of the team sports locker rooms is a big screen TV and massive leather couch that has the capacity to fit the entire team. Small cutbacks in less critical areas should be made in order to satisfy the essential needs of our staff at JMU.

We need to take action to help our JMU staff feel more respected. Many people think they cannot make a difference, especially in changing our workers’ salaries. However, we can do small things to improve their current conditions. Students, faculty, and other staff members could sign a petition for a JMU staff appreciation week, make friendly posters to put on the janitorial closet doors, smile, say “Hi”, and pick up messes around them. Recognizing everyone as part of the James Madison University community and appreciating the work they do for us can go a long way, and help JMU unite to become a more cooperative and supportive campus.

So next time you drop a piece of garbage on the ground or leave a mess from the partying you did over the weekend, remember that as you sleep in on Monday morning, someone else has had to wake up at 5 to come and clean your mess. Remember that as you pass them in the morning while you’re on your way to class or out to have fun, a simple “Hi” or “Have a great day” makes a world of difference.


Works Cited


Bostian, Melissa; McGee, Becky; Nix, Jennifer; Nolte, Jennifer. Housekeeping Survey. 24 October 2003.


Bostian, Melissa; McGee, Becky; Nix, Jennifer; Nolte, Jennifer. Student Survey.

25 October 2003.

“James Madison University: Housekeeping (Classified)”. http://www.jmu.edu/humanresources/jobs/housekeepingclassified.shtml

11 November 2003.

“James Madison University: Housekeeping Supervisor Senior”. http://www.jmu.edu/humanresources/jobs/0903.shtml 11 November 2003.

“James Madison University: Housekeeping Team Leaders”. http://www.jmu.edu/humanresources/jobs/leader.shtml 11 November 2003.

“U.S. Department of Labor: Employment Standards Administration Wage and Hour Division.” http://www.dol.gov/esa/minwage/America.html#PuertoRico

2 November 2003.

Weaver, Crystal. “Housekeeping Staff Honored, deserves UNL’s thanks”. Daily Nebraskan 19 September 2003, online edition. http://www.dailynebraskan.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2003/09/19/3f6a8903e48b1 26 October 2003.

“Yale’s Labor Troubles Deepen as Thousands Go on Strike”. http://lists.iww.org/pipermail/iww-news/2003-March/001483.html 2 November 2003.

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