Custodial workers clean a classroom

What Goes “Bump” In The Night – Meet OPP’s Third Shift

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A university as large and complex as Penn State must maintain a 24/7 operation to keep things running smoothly for faculty, staff, students and visitors. This effort requires a sizeable group of employees within the Office of Physical Plant (OPP) to tackle work across three separate shifts. Those on third shift work tirelessly in relative obscurity to clean facilities, resolve emergencies and make sure campus is in tip top shape by morning.

The population of third shift workers is fairly large, with 150 custodial workers making up the largest portion. They are joined by two individuals in OPP's Work Reception Center and two others in Control and Communications Services. For most of these employees, the work week starts on Sunday night at 10 p.m. and concludes on Friday morning at 6:30 a.m.

Third shift custodial workers typically clean buildings too heavily trafficked during the day and places where they would be interrupting business or learning. These buildings include labs, office buildings, the library, the Student Health Center, recreational buildings, and general purpose classrooms. In order to get all of the work done, Custodial Operations recently converted to a process called Team Cleaning. With this new method, the cleaning is done by task specialist. In addition to this setup, there is an overnight crew dedicated specifically to floor care that works four 10-hour days, and one custodian who works third shift on weekends.

Custodial third shift workers are also tasked with snow removal at building entrances, as well as building security, specifically for buildings that do not automatically lock down. This comes with its own challenges, often due to late night study sessions. According to Erik Cagle, manager of Custodial Operations, "Third shift tries very hard to be accommodating and student-centered because they know their job is to create a clean and pleasant learning environment for students. But it's also hard to satisfy professors who expect a clean classroom when you can't access a space or someone comes in after you're done cleaning. That is one of the biggest frustrations for third shift workers because they take a lot of pride in what they do."

For the duo working at the Work Reception Center overnight, there are usually fewer incoming calls compared to what first and second shift handle. However, the calls coming in tend to be more urgent. According to WRC supervisor Jason Wolfgang, no two nights are the same. "A typical night for our third shift is kind of slow as we get fewer calls. Because of this, we often have our third shift workers catch up on administrative work we don't have time to get to during the day. However, on certain days, the night shift can get crazy with the phone ringing off the hook. WRC third shift employees are often tasked with the hard job of waking up trades workers to come in and help during an emergency."

Working hand-in-hand with the WRC is Control and Communications Services, another 24/7 operation. The two overnight team members monitor alarms, remotely troubleshoot building automation systems, and report to the Work Control Center any situations needing to be addressed.

Working third shift comes with its challenges. According to Cagle, working at night and sleeping during the day can still feel unnatural even after years on the job. "The human body is wired to sleep when it's dark outside. For many people, it's extremely easy to go back to a normal sleep cycle when they retire." Another obstacle of working third shift is the absence of students and other resources. "Simple things that most of us take for granted -- like calling IT when we have a computer problem -- is a bigger issue for night shift workers," said Cagle. "They can't pick up the phone and call the help desk or get help from HR immediately." Additionally, if they want to communicate with building occupants that they will be cleaning carpets in an office space, they have to send an email or leave a note.

When an emergency happens overnight, WRC employees are responsible for calling in the necessary crew members. This can be a challenge. According to WRC employee Theresa Maher, calling in employees during an emergency requires assertive people to be at the wheel. Although she was working the second shift at the time, Maher recalls a particularly stressful event that occurred while she was alone in the WRC. "There was a microburst that took out 18 or 19 telephone poles. The microburst occurred during the day, but it was after the technicians left at 3:30 p.m. -- the phone was flooded with calls and the fire alarm was also going off, so I couldn't hear anything. That was definitely the busiest and scariest day working irregular hours."

While it has its challenges, there are also benefits to third shift work. Sharon Leigey, a third shift custodian, said working the night shift allows her to spend her days as she pleases without missing work. "Working the night shift means I can catch up on yard work, easily schedule my doctor's appointments, or just enjoy nice weather." Likewise, third shift WRC employee Sherry Pinamonti said, "I am able to have flexibility during the day to participate in activities with my kids, and schedule appointments for mundane things like vet visits for the dog, etc., during hours others are normally working. I also am able to visit the grocery store at very odd hours because I am typically awake overnight even when I am off, so I get to avoid the crowds."

Family can be a big factor for those who work the night shift, but it isn't the only reason employees have for choosing unorthodox hours. Maher is one of those people. Because she spends her nights in the office, Maher is able to find time during the days to tend to her family, work on Penn State's 21st Century Automotive Challenge, manage a rental property, volunteer regularly at Meals on Wheels, and volunteer at her children's school library. "I've met a lot of really interesting people working the third shift. I quickly found out most people have a reason for working these hours -- a lot of people I've met during third shift are business owners, but their business isn't quite to the level yet where they can solely rely on it for income."

According to many custodian and WRC third shift employees, there's a great sense of camaraderie among the team members that work overnight and they tend to look out for one another. "We all take care of each other and we all listen for each other," said Maher. "I've always felt safe here because I knew the other third shift workers were looking out for me."