CUNY Budget Leads to Disrepair and Unsanitary Restroom Conditions

Men's bathroom blocked off on first floor of Ingersoll Hall. / All images by Paul Frangipane

In the men’s bathroom on the second floor of James Hall, a urinal is covered in a plastic wrapping in front of three locked stalls, two with “out of order” signs made with paper towels and one containing a toilet ripped out of the wall next to a cardboard box. Meanwhile on the first floor of Roosevelt Hall, a sign that says not to throw brown paper towels in the toilets hangs above a urinal clogged with a paper towel in an air that is stale, hot and filled with an aroma that tickles the nostrils in a way that is hard to ignore.

Out of 40 bathrooms checked by the Kingsman in eight buildings across campus, 21 of those had at least one toilet or sink broken with a total of 14 broken sinks and 12 broken toilets. The maintenance for over 100 bathrooms at the school lies in the hands of two plumbers.

“I would love to hire more plumbers, and four years ago that was my plan,” Francis Fitzgerald, the Assistant Vice President of Facilities at the college said. “I am basically short-staffed in every single one of my departments.”

The reason for this understaffing is a lack of room in the CUNY budget. The $3 billion budget that covers 23 campuses has kept the tradition of having two plumbers and the occasional plumber’s assistant, since Fitzgerald started his position almost four years ago.

“The physical disrepair at CUNY is only the tangible evidence of a deeper pattern of underinvestment,” Professional Staff Congress CUNY said in a press release in October after a Twitter and Instagram campaign that helped showcase the state of facilities at CUNY schools.

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With a significant number of bathrooms to fix, the facilities department has created a set of priorities to assess which bathrooms should be fixed first, with the idea that not all of them can possibly be repaired at once.

A special eye is kept on handicapped accessible bathrooms being fixed above others. The second priority looks at percentages of broken appliances and fixes those bathrooms with the highest number of problems. For example, a bathroom of three toilets with two broken will be fixed before a bathroom of five toilets with one broken. The last priority is on bathrooms that are in high-traffic areas, such as the first floor of the library.

If a report goes in for a broken toilet or sink, maintenance will then cover it with a plastic wrapping temporarily until it can be fixed. These wrappings can remain for a considerable time. “It might sit there for months,” Fitzgerald said.

Some bathrooms, dependent on the problem, can also require other workers such as electricians or masons to fix what could be fixed with just plumbers in another situation.

With emergency calls and other reports that come up ahead of the bathrooms, the plumbers who are maintaining the bathrooms every day have to spread their time throughout the issues that arise. “If we get a month of no emergencies and all they [the plumbers] did was take care of bathrooms, I think we’d be in pretty good shape,” Fitzgerald said with a chuckle. “But that’s not going to happen.”

Library bathroom closed for cleaning

At President Michelle Anderson’s Listening Tour session, she brought up the problem of maintaining the bathrooms as well as keeping them sanitary for the entire college.

The current budget allows for 82 custodial positions over one major shift. There are currently 78 custodians at the college that work from around 6:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. cleaning every single bathroom. Due to a lack of funds, there are few on the late-day and night shifts to maintain the bathrooms, which become covered with paper towels and unidentifiable sludge by the end of the day until the next morning.

“If I just see random pieces of paper towel on the floor, I take a little bit of offense for that, because the folks that are cleaning our bathrooms are probably some of the lowest paid staff we have here on campus, and they work hard,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re not doing this for fun, they’re doing this because they need to work and they need to earn money.”

Custodians can make from about $28,000 to $31,000 a year, with supervisors making up to $37,000.

“I can very confidently say that we don’t have enough custodians,” Fitzgerald said. He said if the college had twice as many custodians and two full shifts, that might be the correct number of workers. “It’s a constant battle,” he said. “We’re not perfect.”

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