by Sally James
For the daughter of two custodians, a process that started with bringing coffee and bread to custodians in their workplaces one year ago swelled into an advocacy and lobbying effort. She wants to ensure that custodians receive preference for the COVID-19 vaccine — as well as better wages, hazard pay, and increased status in society.
Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano identifies as Filipino and white. Her mother emigrated to Seattle from the Philippines. Her father, who died almost two decades ago, was born in Seattle but was the son of immigrants from Turkey. Romano lives in Beacon Hill and is a graduate student studying public health and social work at the University of Washington (UW).
Her year of helping and valuing custodians “made me think about how human lives are valued in our society and custodians, many of whom are immigrants and refugees, are often overlooked,” she told the Emerald in an interview.
After gradually growing more and more upset with the way society overlooks this work, she wrote a letter to the editor published in The Seattle Times asking for this group to be deemed “essential” so that vaccines would be available to them immediately. Those who currently qualify as essential workers eligible for the vaccine include grocery workers, agricultural workers, first responders, police officers, and transit workers. But not custodians.
“My mother — a custodian for more than 31 years — wakes every day at 3 a.m. to make sure the buildings she cares for are clean,” Romano wrote in her letter to the editor. “This work has always been demanding (and gratifying). But now the increased complexity of infection-control practices, the inherent risks and physical demands have made that work even more so.”
“The dedication she and her colleagues have shown every day for the past year breathes new meaning into the phrase ‘cleanliness is next to godliness.’ If that is not essential work, I don’t know what is,” Romano wrote. After the letter was published in early March, her mother received the vaccine, but not because custodians were recognized by the State. Instead, Romano’s mother, who is 62, qualified as part of a multigenerational set of households, Romano explained.
Romano’s path to this advocacy began a year ago, when she saw media accounts of thanks and cheers being offered to healthcare workers. Romano wanted the custodians at the UW to receive similar thanks and began by raising donations from a small group of friends and family to bring coffee and bread to a single crew of people. She began buying the bread from Despi Delite Bakery, known for their Filipino breads.
Her efforts snowballed, and as Romano received more and more donations, she woke at 3 a.m. once a week to make coffee, pick up baked goods and bring it to different crews on campus. She estimates there are 266 workers involved in custodial duties at UW (excluding UW Medical Center). She brought treats to nearly all. At one point, Macrina Bakery began donating bakery items and eventually donated almost 120 pounds, she said.
As time went on, Romano added to her knowledge of the working lives of custodians by using a technique known as photovoice as part of her inquiry. Romano invited custodians to take photos to document their lives, in a technique that helps capture the day-to-day reality of groups as opposed to more academic research. She applied for and received a grant from UW to continue this work.
“I started as coffee and bread … And it has become more of a bigger thing than I would ever have imagined,” she said.
Romano gradually questioned how society assigns value to certain occupations. Her father worked two jobs, one at the UW as an overnight custodian and one during the day. “What does that say about livable wages that many custodians work two jobs?” she wondered.
Her letter to the editor drew many comments and about 50 people told her they wrote to the office of Governor Jay Inslee, hoping that custodians could be added to the priority list of essential workers for COVID-19 vaccines. Romano has created an Instagram account called The UW Custodian Project, where she hopes to attract signatures on a petition demanding that custodians receive $4 an hour in hazard pay during the pandemic. The Emerald reached out to the UW’s maintenance and construction department for comment on the issue of hazard pay but did not receive a response by the time this article went to press.
When Romano graduates in June — if all goes well — with dual degrees in public health and social work, she isn’t sure where she will work. She already volunteers at a nonprofit providing counseling for Asian and Pacific Islanders. She also works on a project for better outreach to underserved populations on transportation by the City of Seattle.
But she knows that her journey to help people who are undervalued is not over and will be part of whatever she does next.
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at SeattleScienceWriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.
Featured Image: Evalynn Romano’s advocacy for people who work as custodians began by delivering coffee and baked goods. Her efforts now involve speaking up for better wages, hazard pay, and increased status in society for custodians. Photo courtesy of Evalynn Romano.
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