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Janitorial Rights Under Scrutiny

AHEC STAFF SEEKS AWARENESS, JUSTICE

Recently, the custodial workers at Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC)  have been the recipients of intense discrimination, which seems to be racially oriented and extends into prejudice against non-English-speaking workers.

The AHEC staff complained to their superiors well before the current director at AHEC Facility Services began at the organization. When the old management was still in place, classes and opportunities were offered to non-English-speaking employees to learn the language. It was said that during monthly staff meetings, someone would translate in Spanish to those that were not able to understand, in order to more effectively communicate in the team setting.

Employees under current management feel distressed because they aren’t given any opportunities to learn English, but are still expected to know the language. Learning English can be difficult for many workers, as tutors, books, and other resources are extremely expensive, and many of these workers are financially providing for single-income households.         

In 2013, 12 AHEC custodians filed a lawsuit with help from local labor union Colorado WINS regarding the discrimination experienced by non-English-speaking staff. Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that AHEC had been in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act states that an employer cannot discriminate “with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

However, many current employees don’t feel that things have changed after the investigation and ruling by the EEOC.

Nearly every custodial member found on campus was afraid to speak to the Sentry. It seems as though these workers are bound by financial and cultural struggles, and they are afraid of being disciplined or losing their jobs over what could be seen as disobedience.

In 2016, one would think that racism and abusive work environments don’t exist anymore, but for Denver’s Latino population,  it’s all too real. Discrimination is happening here on this campus to the men and women who dutifully ensure everyone has a clean bathroom to use between classes and a pristine school to attend every day.

After finally finding staff members who were willing to talk to the Sentry, a larger picture unveiled itself; one that focused on higher management at AHEC. Many of the custodians who spoke have been with AHEC for 10-20 years, and have felt the full force of discrimination that appears to be systemic within this company.

The consensus was that Hispanic employees are facing discrimination in their duties at work, and not only for being non-English speaking. “There used to be 13 Hispanics assigned to three different buildings,” one employee said. “They all quit because they know their rights, and now we’re down to eight. But the workload stays the same.” 

Please, you cannot use my name.

As the story continued to unfold, employees spoke about the Christmas parties that AHEC throws where all the Hispanic employees were put together at a table in the back of the room. “For the most part, everyone got electronics or gift cards to restaurants, but all of the Hispanic people received new cleaning uniforms for Christmas,” one employee said. The degradation and anger could be felt across the room.

Still, the general feeling of absolute fear was exacerbated during the confessions of personal stories and feelings during this meeting with the Sentry. “Please, you cannot use my name,” another person said. These employees are minorities, immigrants, and lack an education, which makes their jobs a means of survival, not only for themselves, but the spouses and children they are trying to feed.

Issues with the AHEC management and the custodial staff on campus became extremely tense. The Auraria custodial staff was asked by Director of Facilities Operations, Tara Weatcher, to disclose their work status to AHEC.

The documents employees were asked to sign indicated whether or not they had other places of employment and if this employment was part-time or full-time. Some of the staff feel that even though secondary employment is within the rights of AHEC to ask about, prying too far into this information could cause them to unfairly lose their jobs.

It is possible that asking about secondary employment is a slippery slope to more personal information, such as compensation in their secondary jobs. The problem is that while the State Personnel Board Rule does not expressly forbid state employers from asking about secondary employment, some staff argue that it doesn’t permit it either.

For many, the wages that AHEC pays for custodial work isn’t enough to feed one person, let alone a family of four, making it essential for some employees to have other sources of income. Rent in Denver has risen astronomically due to the recent influx of migrants from other states, making minimum wage jobs harder to survive on. While the cost of living continues to rise, many employers are failing to raise their wages to help employees meet these costs.

The Sentry staff contacted Weatcher for comment, but she declined. “AHEC denies the allegations made by this small group…AHEC is unable to provide further comment,” Weatcher said in an email to the Sentry. However, the custodial staff seems to disagree with Weatcher as outlined by past interviews with the staff.

Custodial Union Steward Francisco Flores also spoke on the secondary employment form issue. “The purpose of the Board Rule 1.14 was to make sure that there was no conflict of interest,” Flores said. However, Flores feels that by asking this question, AHEC is putting themselves in a position to ask more personal questions about employees’ finances. “If I was your boss and I asked you if your second job is full-time or part-time, I would be entering into a gray area in which I would have some latitude to ask how much money you make there,” Flores said.

In a larger scale, the documents that custodians were asked to sign were not just a potential springboard into their personal affairs, but yet another method of discrimination by AHEC. According to Flores, no other department was asked to fill out this form.  “This agency has the habit of singling out the custodial department,” Flores said. The Sentry asked why Flores thinks this is. “Because they are educated; they are white folks,” Flores said.

Communication between the Sentry and AHEC officials has unfortunately been unsuccessful. The Sentry maintains its integrity in trying to reach out for comments in order to understand the firm’s side of the story.

Still, the question remains: where does one go from here? Should students on Auraria Campus turn a blind eye to the issues boiling beneath the surface? The information obtained in the interviews suggests that there is action to be taken, but the boundaries are fragile. Students can offer support by treating custodians with kindness, but must also respect AHEC’s rights as an institution. They are no different than the rest of those who frequent Auraria.

By continuing to urge that AHEC be held responsible for their actions, the interviews conducted with employees may not have been done in vain. The custodial staff and people of Auraria deserve answers as to why this systemic discrimination towards non-English speakers has taken place. A campus filled with intellectuals and bright young minds shouldn’t be a place where this sort of action is tolerated.

The key issue is whether or not AHEC is making decisions biased by racial or cultural background. With the current political climate in the US, these problems are going to continue to be uprooted and talked about in the public forum. It would be eye-opening, but not surprising, that these things are happening in the places Auraria Campus students take classes, study, eat, and hang out. Discrimination issues are not just articles in papers, nor online video rants, nor news videos of protests, but are here right under everyone’s noses. In many aspects discrimination is built into the foundations of this country and if it continues to be treated as typical, the problem will not be resolved.

Most of all, the Sentry thanks those men and women who are part of the custodial staff, and who were brave enough to share their stories, even in the midst of this ongoing matter.

-Dylan Streight and Ashley Bauler

Photo: Korina Rojo

 

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