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In Plain Sight: UCLA’s custodians work around the clock to keep campus clean

Uniforms worn by members of the UCLA facilities management team are pictured. Members of the team work to ensure that campus buildings are tidy and sanitized. (Anna Dai-Liu/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Sam Mulick

Jan. 16, 2024 1:18 a.m.

Lead custodian Alicia Munoz had an unusual problem.

One day, a custodian on her team refused to complete a task, too scared of moving the cadavers in the basement of the Center for Health Sciences building. Munoz, however, was up to the task.

“I’ll do it for you,” she said.

From keeping public areas clean, emptying trash bins and maintaining restrooms to responding to emergencies, UCLA’s 348 custodial team members work around the clock to ensure sanitation across the 12.5 million square feet of the UCLA campus.

While scrubbing urinals in the men’s bathroom on the first floor of the Ueberroth Building with a toilet brush and soap on a Thursday night, senior custodian Judy Banks explained over the sounds of toilets flushing why she has stayed at UCLA for nearly 23 years.

“I wouldn’t quit. I would never quit. I love it. It’s just a great company to work for,” she said. “I’ve been here almost 23 years. I’ve seen it all, I’ve heard it all, and I’ve met a lot of nice people.”

Banks said she views her colleagues as family, since she spends more time with them than anyone else. Her shift runs daily from 5:30 p.m. until 2 a.m. in the Ueberroth Building, where she has worked for 19 years.

(Leydi Cris Cobo Cordon/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Alicia Munoz, a lead custodian, is pictured talking about her work. (Leydi Cris Cobo Cordon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Ana Sanchez has worked as a custodian in the Facilities Management Building for nearly two years, where she covers the second floor. She spends the night cleaning every surface, taking out the trash and vacuuming the carpets in the offices.

Sanchez said she works the 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift – also worked by 70% of the university’s custodians – because it allows her to spend more time taking care of her kids. She said she sought a position at UCLA after working as a cashier at KFC because she wanted a better-paying job and one that gave her more flexibility to spend time with her family. She added that she appreciated the advice she received from colleagues when she started in the role, such as which cleaning products accumulated the least amount of dust.

Munoz said she came to the United States from Mexicali, Mexico, when she was 24 years old.

Before working as a UCLA employee, she said she was not a part of a union and felt taken advantage of during her time as a custodian at Arena. Now a single grandmother, she said she feels better about her work with all her rights guaranteed under her union contract with the university.

According to UCLA’s website, all custodians are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 union. According to the union’s website, every four years, the union negotiates a contract with the UC Board of Regents that covers working conditions and benefits for employees.

(Leydi Cris Cobo Cordon/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Pictured is a cleaning cart used by members of the facilities management staff. (Leydi Cris Cobo Cordon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

As the lead custodian for the Center for Health Sciences, Munoz is the team’s supervisor regarding the maintenance most of UCLA’s medical school facilities. She added that her various responsibilities include delegating jobs to her team, filling in to cover absences, receiving and organizing shipments, checking her team’s work, and completing requests to clean specific areas filed by faculty members.

A challenge of covering almost the entire medical school is the timeliness of certain cleaning duties, Munoz said, adding that her team drops everything so they can empty the trash during the School of Dentistry’s lunch hour.

“They have to run and finish it in an hour,” she said. “Sometimes I come over and help them and give a hand when they have a lot of trash.”

(Anna Dai-Liu/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Judy Banks, a custodian, is pictured removing trash from a men’s restroom in the Ueberroth Building. (Anna Dai-Liu/Daily Bruin senior staff)

The Center for Health Sciences is open for 24 hours, so members of Munoz’s custodial team arrive as early as 4:30 a.m. to keep up with the building’s constant demands, but often her own daily work schedule is not enough.

“Sometimes I stay overtime,” Munoz said. “It depends because sometimes we have a trouble call like a flood, and I have to work with the machines and the people to help me to cover that.”

Munoz said one memorable trouble call happened early on in her time at UCLA when pipes burst in Boyer Hall, and the building had a flood that covered three floors and needed the help of every custodian on staff to resolve.

“It was like eight inches of water, and we were walking in the water,” she said. “There were like 25 custodians helping because the ceiling fell down.”

(Leydi Cris Cobo Cordon/Daily Bruin senior staff)
A floor scrubber, which is used for cleaning floors, is pictured. (Leydi Cris Cobo Cordon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Banks, who has worked across three different buildings, said one mess that stands out was when the Ueberroth Building changed its toilet paper and the new paper would not break down, clogging the pipes for at least 10 days and creating a mess.

As her shift continued into the night, Sanchez’s responsibilities also included wiping down tables and countertops in the staff’s break room. She added that even though she works long nights, she rarely gets tired or bored.

“I don’t feel tired because you could find something to do,” she said. “You do a little project here and there to pass the time.”

When asked what the hardest part of her job is on a daily basis, she paused for a moment, struggling to come up with anything, before she said the constant smell of the trash can sometimes gets to her.

(Anna Dai-Liu/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Jesus González, a senior custodian working in the Center for Health Sciences building, is pictured mopping a floor. (Anna Dai-Liu/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Speaking on her favorite parts of the job, Munoz emphasized her team’s mutual respect for each other and the positive work environment she has tried to cultivate for the past six years. She also mentioned her excitement every morning when figuring out how to delegate areas due to the day’s absences.

“When they (staff members) call off, they cover the areas too,” Munoz said. “Even if seven call off, we cover the areas.”

After Banks mopped the men’s bathroom and collected the last of the trash, she filled her cart with garbage bags and supplies, ready to move on to the rest of her night‘s tasks.

She will repeat the same process for two more bathrooms in Ueberroth, clean the rest of the building with her coworker, clock out at 2 a.m. and prepare to do it all over again the next day, like she’s done for nearly 23 years.

“I don’t have any complaints,” she said. “It’s not really hard. Just come and work. Do your work, maintain the area. And that’s it. That’s all it takes.”

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Sam Mulick
Mulick is a news contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a third-year sociology student from northern New Jersey.
Mulick is a news contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a third-year sociology student from northern New Jersey.
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