A Year Later, Oakland Custodians Are Still Waiting for All Their PPE

When the COVID-19 pandemic started last year, everyone quickly learned how important it was to have personal protective equipment.

Workplaces throughout the country also realized how important it was to have custodians because cleanliness has been one of the main things keeping us all safe.

So when folks started talking about the need for essential workers to have PPE, the custodians at Oakland Unified School District thought they would be first in line to receive it. After all, they deal with people’s garbage, human waste, sweat and tears every day.

But that wasn’t the case for Rechelle Richie-Leach and our AFSCME Local 257 custodian sisters and brothers throughout the school district.

“For the last year, as I’ve been coming here to work, I have never completely had what I needed to protect myself while doing my job,” said Richie-Leach, a custodian at La Escuelita Elementary School. “It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

That’s one of the reasons why, for the last year, Local 257 members have been calling out the school district to make sure that, when it comes to PPE, custodians aren’t left behind.

Richie-Leach said it’s been frustrating that Oakland school custodians have been having such a difficult time getting access to something that, by now, should come standard for essential workers.

When schools first shut down last year, Richie-Leach said she attended a meeting with other custodians and district staff where they discussed the school district’s plan for keeping everyone safe.

Our members were expecting to see a system developed to make things easier for them to do their jobs.

“But all they gave each one of us was a ziplock bag of masks and that was our PPE,” she said. “We were told to wash them and not get them dirty. But that’s all we do every day is deal with dirt.”

As the months went by and the PPE needed to be replaced, the district was slow to order supplies and distribute them to custodians who never stopped working, Richie-Leach said.

The district also restricted the custodians’ access to PPE, she said, even as they were told to place masks, gloves and hand sanitizer in storage for teachers and other school staff.

It put DeAndre Haskins in a tough place one day when he needed a new mask and gloves to clean up Oakland Technical High School, where he works as head custodian.

Haskins said he had just finished restocking the PPE at his school when he noticed that he and other custodians were low on their own supplies.

What he did next made him feel like he was stealing.

“A day later, I took initiative and took a couple masks, gloves and other PPE and distributed them to my staff,” Haskins said. “It just felt wrong that we had to keep begging.”

He later got reprimanded and he was forced to return the supplies to storage.

But that was a sacrifice he was willing to make to make sure custodians were given the respect they deserve, Haskins said.

“I would take that slap on the wrist anytime to keep me and staff safe,” he said.

Now that schools have reopened, our members’ hope is that Oakland Unified cleans up its process for ordering and distributing PPE to all its employees.

“We’ve done it all to make our voices heard—letters, LMC meetings, weekly custodian meetings,” Richie-Leach said. "All we're saying is that they should be more proactive.”