With about 27 unfilled positions districtwide, Portland Public Schools custodians say they are feeling the squeeze.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The hallway at Wilson High School. The head custodian there says he often has less than a full compliment of staff to clean the building.The head custodian at Wilson High School says he has never seen conditions so bad at the district.

"I urge you guys to reevaluate the custodial budget when the time comes," Adam Napier told the Portland Public Schools board Tuesday, Nov. 27.

Napier said he needs seven to nine people to properly clean the high school but due to unstaffed positions in his building and elsewhere, he usually has only three people.

He asked the school board to imagine what it would be like to clean 300,000 square-foot "house" with 1,700 teenagers "and you have to clean up after them with three people."

Napier said the staff who are left are overworked and calling out sick far more often. He added that he is seeing communicable diseases like whooping cough, MRSA and hand-foot-and-mouth disease for the first time ever in his school, suggesting the lack of disinfectant is contributing to the spread.

In an interview with the Tribune, Jefferson High School Head Custodian James Dean painted a less dire picture, but still said many of his staff get called away to cover other schools.

"We'll just have to step it up that day. There's nothing else you can do," Dean said. He added that there are dramatically fewer applicants to the positions these days and wonders if the opening salary isn't attractive enough.

"People don't seem to want the job anymore," Dean said.

Mike Bray, an organizer with SEIU 503, told the school board Tuesday evening that custodians called out sick 20 percent of the time last school year, compared to 10 percent in 2013.

"It's not a staffing shortage anymore. It's a crisis," Bray said, pressuring the superintendent and school board to come up with raises for custodial staff to attract and retain personnel. "We bring this all back to wages."

Interim Chief Human Resources Officer Sharon Reese said the district is considering all options to increasing the pool of custodial applicants, including pay, but also streamlining the hiring process, advertising aggressively and creating more flexible hours.

"We are in agreement with SEIU that we need to fill our vacant positions as quickly as possible and get more custodians in place," Reese said in a statement from the district. "As of Tuesday, we had 27 vacant custodian positions we are looking to fill — although that number fluctuates."

Human Resources data shows that the district has hired 28 full-time and part-time custodians since July 1. Since that time, 20 have left, leaving a net gain of only eight janitors.

"We hope attention on this matter helps us fill these vacancies," Reese said.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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UPDATE (12/10/18): Adam Napier's testimony on communicable diseases was clarified.

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