The scent is clean and unmistakable. As most City employees (the ones who aren't telecommuting) walk into their workplaces each morning, they are greeted by the sharp but reassuring smell of disinfectants. The cleansers are being used by a small but determined group of City custodians. Each day they work to fend off the invisible but formidable coronavirus that has dominated our conversations and lives the past few weeks.
“They are on the front line, making sure that everything in our buildings is clean,” Stephen Webber says of his seven-person custodial crew. Webber is head of the Building Maintenance Division of Public Works, which includes providing janitorial services in many City buildings.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work done by custodians should be getting more attention and appreciation these days. The coronavirus is spread person to person, according to the Centers for Disease Control. An infected person who coughs or sneezes can transmit the virus to others who are within about 6 feet. The CDC says the coronavirus can survive for hours to days on a variety of surfaces, and cleaning and disinfection are among the best practices to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses like the one that causes COVID-19.
“We’re doing what we always have been doing,” Webber says of the City’s cleaning and disinfection regimen. Because of the coronavirus, he says City custodians are now more “detail oriented” and clean more frequently. “If we used to clean bathrooms once or twice a day, we’re doing them three or four times a day,” Webber says. “We’re paying even more attention to door handles and high-traffic areas.”
In addition to the door handles and knobs, custodians armed with disinfectants are diligently cleaning water fountains, bathrooms, and kitchen areas of City buildings. They are mopping floors more frequently. Elevator buttons, vending machines and anything else touched frequently by human hands need to be wiped down several times a day.
Webber says the decision to close most City buildings to the public effective March 19 reduced foot traffic but not the amount of work done by custodians. “We’re cleaning just as much, if not more,” Webber says. “We have to maintain a constant level of defense against the virus.”
Crews start cleaning at 7 a.m., before most 8-to-5 employees show up. “We’re kind of like church mice,” Webber jokes. “We come in, we do our thing and we leave. It’s not that we don’t want to be seen; we don’t want to be in the way of people doing their jobs.”
Consumers know that retailers can’t keep enough toilet paper and hand sanitizer on the shelves these days. Webber says the demand/supply crunch is also hurting workplaces, making it hard to get enough hand soap, paper towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies for City buildings. And custodians also need disposable gloves to wear on the job. So far, the City has been able to get the products it needs.
Some City departments and buildings have their own custodians. Parks and Recreation employees clean Gastonia’s community centers, park restrooms, playgrounds and picnic shelters. Parks Director Cam Carpenter says his department’s landscaping and recreation employees are working together to make sure parks facilities are cleaned and sanitized during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fire Chief Phil Welch says firefighters are the custodians at all City fire stations. Likewise, employees of the City’s three wastewater treatment plants serve as the custodians. Wastewater Treatment Division Manager Stephanie Scheringer says all areas of wastewater plants are being cleaned twice per shift, and all plants operate 24 hours a day. At the water treatment plant, also open 24 hours a day, the plant’s employees are all pitching in to keep the facility clean and safe, according to Water Treatment Manager Ed Cross. And Transit employees, part of Community Services, are cleaning City buses as often as hourly or after each trip.
Webber, of Building Maintenance, says he is incredibly proud of his janitorial staff and the work they are doing, especially during the pandemic. “They tend to be overlooked,” he says of his custodians. “It’s such an unsung job. People forget how much work goes into cleaning a bathroom. It’s just taken for granted.”
The seven City of Gastonia custodians who work for Building Maintenance are:
- Jamal Hatten, Field Supervisor who works at City Hall and wherever needed
- Joe Howell, Transit Center
- Debra Lawson, Police Department
- Kathy Moore, Equipment Services and City Hall
- Pamela Pruitt, Police Department
- Millie Turas, Municipal Operations Center
- Renee Williams, Garland Center
Hatten took over as field supervisor earlier this year, when David Truett retired after more than 30 years working for the City. “David left some big shoes to fill,” Webber says. “But Jamal has stepped right in and is doing a great job.” Webber compares it to the Green Bay Packers when quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the field after the Brett Favre dynasty. “Jamal has the personality, the professionalism and the work ethic,” Webber says. “He is balancing everything from arranging staffing to ordering supplies without missing a beat.”
There’s an old saying that cleanliness is next to godliness. And if the City’s vigilant custodians can help keep employees safe from the coronavirus, some might say that they are angels.