The $30 Per Hour Custodian: A Business Case
An increased wage for custodians may attract more reliable talent and end up being a boon for businesses.
By Amelia Bridgford
It’s not difficult to imagine the moral, ethical or humanitarian arguments for raising custodial wages. After all, it’s physically demanding, complex work that is essential for a business to operate effectively. Other positions that meet that description would likely come with compensation that could at least be described as a “living wage.” Yet custodians rarely earn more than $15 per hour. Most financial decision-makers in corporate America would tell you that’s all their bottom line will support.
But what if there was a business case for raising custodial wages — by double? One that could potentially have a positive impact on revenue? Allen Randolph, VP of Business Development at Kaivac, and Chair of the ConnexFM Thought Leadership Committee, thinks there is, and will make the case in an upcoming webinar for ConnexFM members scheduled for May 18.
Randolph describes custodial work as the ultimate entry-level job. “It’s truly the gateway job to the American workforce,” he said. “If you are willing to clean a toilet, you could probably get hired today.” It is also notoriously unpleasant, low-paying work, plagued by a high rate of turnover. This creates an atmosphere of frustration for both those tasked with keeping facilities clean and the hiring managers attempting to keep these positions filled.
“The high turnover leads to a lack of investment in training and innovation — if people are just going to leave, why spend the money?” Randolph said. “But what you end up with are outdated tools, typically cluttered workspaces and minimally-trained employees, which sends the message that this role — and these employees — aren’t terribly important to the company.”
“Cycle of Inefficiencies”
Companies don’t want to invest in improving a role that people are just going to quit. So, they don’t make those investments or improvements, and people quit — and the cycle begins again.
For the more than 35 years he has worked in the custodial world, Randolph has been troubled by this pattern, which he calls the “cycle of inefficiencies” associated with the position. This cycle is so pervasive that it has begun to feel inevitable. But is it?
“The genesis for this concept was asking myself, ‘What would have to be true to break this cycle, and where would you start?’” Randolph said. Ultimately, he decided to start at a living wage for custodians: $30 per hour, or roughly $60,000 per year. If that number sounds unworkable, you may be surprised to hear Randolph argue that in many cases, companies are already effectively spending it.
His argument considers the rising cost of custodial work in a post-COVID world, which, when added to the cost of turnover, brings a company’s effective spend up to around $20 per hour. He then factors the rate of efficiency in the role, which he has estimated to be roughly 50%.
“I’ve routinely asked budget holders and leaders of facilities over the years to estimate their effective rate of custodial efficiency,” Randolph said. “The number has consistently been around 50% or even lower.” (Inefficiency, in this context, means extra trips to the supply closet, waste, re-work, etc.) “So that would bring the effective rate to around $40 per hour,” he continued. “In reality, even with strong investments in training and equipment, you’re never going to reach 100% efficiency, so if we take it to 75% efficiency, you’re at about $30 per hour.”
Randolph points out that this arithmetic does not even take into account the positive impact that consistently cleaner facilities could have on your business: increased customer satisfaction or loyalty, improved employee morale, etc. “Ultimately it comes down to having a really clear value proposition for the work that’s being done” Randolph said. “How important is that clean, hygienic physical space that your employees and customers experience? Is it a differentiator in driving revenue? If you were significantly better than your peers, what could that do? If clean is good business, then investing in the cleaners is equally good business.”
A Plan in Practice
Randolph acknowledged that while his argument is logically sound, implementation could come with some practical challenges. “Historical budget is a challenge, though it might be overcome with the business case we’re presenting,” he said. He predicted the biggest challenge to be the associated impact on wages up the pay scale in an organization. “If this was the lowest-paying job and you doubled it, what does that do to everything else up to that level? That could be a difficult transition for many organizations.”
Custodial work can be a dirty job, and somebody definitely has to do it. Why not make sure that that somebody is well-equipped, well-trained and well-compensated? Especially if it is within a company’s current budgetary capacity?
“Ultimately what I’m suggesting are two things,” Randolph said. “First, you’re already effectively spending the money. And second, if you want to break this cycle of custodial inefficiency, you need to start somewhere. You need a clean, organized workspace, you need some management oversight and training and you need to pay these people a decent wage. The investment you make in those things is easily offset if you can reduce turnover significantly. It can be done. It’s already being done by others, it’s just whether or not your organization has started that journey.”