Protecting ESPs Who Are Threatened for Refusing Unsafe Work

By John Rosales

Removing mold from dozens of classrooms in a two-story building at Cherry Hill High School East in New Jersey was not the usual cleanup job for custodians. It was the type of hazardous work that goes beyond the training of most custodians. Plus, the school did not possess the proper safety equipment, protective gear, and environmental controls for the work to be done thoroughly and in compliance with local and national regulations.

So, why did administrators then insist on custodians performing the work? Why were custodians threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t comply?

“To the untrained eye, a dirty ceiling tile seems to be easily fixed by a custodian who simply changes the tile,” says Nancy Holmes, a UniServ Director with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). “However, when you are dealing with mold, it is very much like an iceberg … what you see is only the tip of it.”

In July, reports of classroom mold had been coming in from schools across the state due in part to an especially hot and wet summer. At Cherry Hill, when custodians were instructed by school administrators to remove mold-infested ceiling tiles, carpeting, and desks, they refused but did not ignore the directive. To do that would risk a charge of insubordination.

Instead, they called Martin Sharofsky, president of the Cherry Hill Education Association (CHEA), a merged local with 1,350 members. A string of events resulted that exemplifies what local Association leaders can do when administrators or school board members direct employees to engage in unsafe activities or those which are a violation of the contract, district policy, or statute.

“I was called by one of the lead custodians,” Sharofsky says. “He became concerned when a supervisor arrived at the site with gloves, masks, and jumpsuits bought at one of the big box stores.”

The over-the-counter materials were presumably purchased for custodians who had been instructed to not only remediate the mold but load mold-infected tiles and carpeting onto an open-bed truck and dump the material at a maintenance yard operated by Cherry Hill Public Schools.

After receiving the telephone call on a Friday morning, Sharofsky was on the scene within 10 minutes. He advised custodians to not engage in the hazardous cleanup until further notice. A school district official then threatened legal action against custodians who would not do the work based on Sharofsky’s direction.

After further inspection of the site, Sharofsky contacted Holmes. She was on her last day of vacation and had just returned home that morning.

“The last thing that I was thinking about was mold,” she says. “When Martin called me and explained the situation, I was worried for the custodians’ health and that we needed to be sure that things were being done properly or these people could get very sick. How could they take care of their families if they couldn’t work?”

Mold on the ceiling at Cherry Hill High School East. Photo: Nancy Holmes

Holmes visited the school building the next day to take notes and photos. Within an hour of being on site, she telephoned Thomas Hardy, an NJEA organizing specialist with whom Holmes had worked to establish health and safety committees in locals across the state. The two participated in a conference call later that day with a staff member from the New Jersey Work Environment Council.

By Monday morning, the situation was resolved. The job was deemed to be a high level cleanup operation by administrators and a professional cleaning service was contracted.

Just six months prior to the incident, more than 125 custodians had joined CHEA from a smaller labor group. Most of the 16 custodians at Cherry Hill are members who knew Sharofsky and Holmes from previous meetings.

“This incident basically galvanized the custodian unit with CHEA and NJEA,” says Sharofsky. “As we had some staff members who did not want to do the work for health reasons and some who were going to do the work for fear of losing their positions, it was extremely important that we be there for them as soon as we could.”

Sharofsky says word spread fast among school education support professionals (ESPs) that CHEA and NJEA had supported the custodians under threats by school administrators.

“They witnessed our concern for their members’ health and jobs,” he says. “This was new to them. As word circulated, a sense of trust developed between them and us. They knew they could count on us.”

When Sharofsky and Holmes contacted school officials and explained that CHEA members would not do the work at that time, “everything was put on hold until further investigation of the mold situation,” Sharofsky says.

“Our custodians are certainly capable of cleaning-up mold, once they have been properly trained and outfitted with protective equipment that is correct for the situation,” Holmes adds. “At no time were the custodians trying to push the work elsewhere, they just were not in a position to do the job safely.”