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University Of California Custodian Discusses Life And Work During A Pandemic


Nick Gutierrez of Watsonville, Calif., near Santa Cruz, is 57 years old, married, has an adult son, a daughter who's in college. And when he has time to himself...

NICK GUTIERREZ: I do yardwork. I like cycling a lot.

SIMON: He also enjoys soccer.

During the week, he drives co-workers to their jobs at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He's been a custodian there for 26 years.

GUTIERREZ: There is a residential building that's called Geneva House. I manage two floors on that house.

SIMON: Most of the students haven't been on campus since March. Some, including the international students, had no choice but to stay in dorms and take classes online. They have to wear a mask when they leave their rooms, even if it's just to go down the hall to brush their teeth or take a shower.

Nick Gutierrez and his crew wear masks, too, and gloves. Here's what their workdays are like.

GUTIERREZ: We start off 7:30 in the morning. The first thing I do is go through the bathrooms, make sure they're really cleaned thoroughly. And I do have a total of six big restrooms that involve four toilets, four showers, four sinks. Each one - make sure that everything gets cleaned thoroughly.


GUTIERREZ: The bathrooms alone take most of the day - a good solid six hours, probably, of the day. And then the other hour and a half to two hours to spend on the four to five hallways - disinfecting three times a day the entrance to the dormitory rooms.


GUTIERREZ: Their study rooms right now, since COVID, got closed because they don't want students going in there, being too close to each other.

SIMON: Nick Gutierrez says they're not using any special cleaners. They're just disinfecting a lot more. And with the extra precautions and social distancing in place, five months into the pandemic, he now feels safe at Geneva House.

GUTIERREZ: We were worried a little bit at the beginning because sometimes the communication between management and workers is not always there.


GUTIERREZ: Sometimes we would find out there was a student who tested positive and that student was studying in, like, certain classrooms, and then we were asked to go and clean them without management telling us. If you're told that in that room, be extra careful 'cause there was a student who tested positive, as soon as I disinfect all the chairs and desks in that classroom, I'm going to throw my gloves away. I'm not going to use them anymore.


GUTIERREZ: If we're working with a classroom where this isn't the case, we normally stick with that pair of gloves for the entire day before we throw them away. Management is getting better little by little, but it's because of so many complaints from us and our local union.


SIMON: There are now new concerns. Wildfires are an immediate worry. But also, a lack of students coming back to school could mean a lack of jobs.

GUTIERREZ: We know that fall quarter, September is around the corner. And we already know that not all students are going to come back and attend school. You know, most of them are going to be taking classes online. And layoffs might be around the corner.

And we're fighting real hard with UC to not do any layoffs, to exert their last resource that they have to keep us working 'cause there's always something that we can be doing, especially now - right? - with these fires. I mean, UC is going to need a lot of cleaning. There's ashes up on campus everywhere. So there is work to be done. Just keep us working. Don't lay anybody off 'cause we all need the work that we're doing. We all need to provide for our families. We all need to pay our bills.

SIMON: Nick Gutierrez, a senior custodian at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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