Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth College axes cleaning company; mess persists with janitors

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/14/2021 7:16:12 AM
Modified: 11/14/2021 7:16:11 AM

I might have underestimated Dartmouth. In spite of its never-ending quest to amass greater wealth — an $8.5 billion endowment and counting — the college still on occasion reveals a social conscience.

Last week, Dartmouth severed ties with Upper Valley Cleaning, a Hanover-based company that had worked for the college since 2015. It was encouraging to see Dartmouth look beyond its bottom line and do the right thing.

Not that it had much choice.

Allegations about inappropriate workplace sexual behavior by Upper Valley Cleaning owner Rob Kebalka that initially surfaced on social media and Valley News staff writer John Lippman reported on in depth last Sunday were impossible to brush off.

On Tuesday, I asked Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence whether the college would continue doing business with Upper Valley Cleaning.

On Wednesday, I heard back from Lawrence. “In a decision that has been in the works,” she emailed, Dartmouth will “no longer use their services.”

Thank you, Nikkea Kimball.

She’s the property manager at the Treetops condominium complex in Lebanon who had the courage to bring to light the sexual harassment allegations against Kebalka.

In September, Kimball posted on the Upper Valley (VT/NH) Facebook group about her experience with Kebalka, whom she’d hired to clean at Treetops. Her post led other women — mostly former employees of Upper Valley Cleaning — to share their stories.

Before she went public, Kimball told me that some people warned her “not to stir the pot.” But she thought it was important to speak up for women who couldn’t. Some are single moms. Others have battled substance use. They couldn’t risk losing their jobs.

“Some of these women are struggling as it is,” Kimball told me. “They shouldn’t be subject to this.”

After hearing from Kimball, Treetops’ developers and the owner of an adjacent office building terminated its contracts with Upper Valley Cleaning.

Dartmouth was paying Upper Valley Cleaning for “janitorial cleanup after athletic events, after-hours cleaning of infirmary spaces, and to clean units between tenants in the apartments we rent.”

On Tuesday — two days after the Valley News story came out — Upper Valley Cleaning worked its final athletic events at the college. (I emailed Kebalka for a response. I didn’t hear back.)

In her Wednesday email, Lawrence added “we hope that any employees affected by our decision will consider applying for temporary and full-time union-benefited custodial positions at Dartmouth.”

That entreaty isn’t an empty platitude. Even before parting ways with Upper Valley Cleaning, Dartmouth was desperate for janitors. Last week the college was advertising nine custodian openings on line.

The bind the college finds itself in, however, is of its own doing.

For more than a decade, Dartmouth has chipped away at the number of custodians and other blue-collar workers that it employs. When people retired or moved on, they weren’t always replaced.

In the early 2000s, Local 560 of the Service Employees’ International Union had more than 520 members. The union now covers roughly 400 on-campus workers.

Dartmouth officials have maintained over the years that they’re not out to bust the union, which has represented college workers since the 1960s.

But at times it’s certainly seemed that way. To reduce labor costs, Dartmouth began outsourcing some blue-collar jobs — a business plan used by private industries across the country.

Bringing in outside companies allowed Dartmouth to accomplish two goals. It avoided paying costly benefits to low-wage employees and didn’t have to battle the union as much over workers’ rights.

Chris Peck, a college painter for more than 30 years, is president of Local 560. When we talked Wednesday, he didn’t seem surprised that college officials were having to untangle themselves from a business dealing with a private company hired to replace union workers.

“They don’t look into the background of these companies,” Peck said. “I think they’re so desperate, they don’t want to know.”

Dartmouth has roughly 100 union custodians. The college, which always seems to be in a construction mode and plans for more undergraduate housing in the works, could probably use an additional 20 to 30 union custodians, Peck said.

But in the current labor market finding custodians is getting harder and harder. Dartmouth is offering a $1,000 bonus to new hires willing to work third shift, which runs from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and includes weekends.

I suspect Dartmouth would have preferred to put off booting Upper Valley Cleaning.

The ice hockey and basketball seasons are just getting underway. With Upper Valley Cleaning no longer in the picture to handle post-game cleanups, Dartmouth might have to turn to union custodians — and they don’t come cheap. Custodians who are called in on their day off to work overtime can earn 1½ times their usual hourly wage, Peck said.

How might Dartmouth — or any other employer for that matter — entice people to take on grunt work where the hours are often lousy and a job well done isn’t always recognized?

Hike the starting pay. Dartmouth’s union custodians begin at about $20 an hour. In today’s economy that’s not big money.

Still, I don’t see Dartmouth budging much. The college doesn’t want to set off a ripple effect.

If starting pay is increased, longtime custodians could make a case for raises. The college’s carpenters, painters and other union tradespeople could argue for more money as well. The next thing you know, union workers will demand better health care benefits.

I doubt Dartmouth wants to go down that road. It has an $8.5 billion endowment to protect. A social conscience has its limits.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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