Some of Hall County Schools’ custodians have been working overtime — even double time — to keep schools clean amid a staffing shortage caused by low wages.
“With what's happened with labor rates, they've just been unable to be 100% staffed almost for the last 18 months,” Superintendent Will Schofield said of American Facility Services, an Alpharetta-based company that has been managing the district’s custodial services for the last three years.
“They've done whatever they can to try to cover, but it became clear that those wage rates just weren't going to work in this economy,” he said.
Last week, the school board unanimously approved an annual $9.8 million contract with a new custodial company, The Budds Group, which includes a 40% increase in base pay for custodians. The contract is renewable for up to five years, though the district has the option of withdrawing every six months.
“I think there’s even opportunities to get out mid-year, are there not?” Schofield asked Matt Cox, director of facilities and construction.
“There are,” Cox said.
The base rate for custodians under the AFS contract — $10 an hour — wasn’t enough to attract or retain custodians, officials said.
Starting pay has been bumped up to $14 an hour under the Budds Group contract.
“We are hopeful that the better wages will help us retain good employees,” Cox said.
He said the district needs about 200 custodians to keep its schools clean, and while they are close to having a full staff, turnover is high.
“You hire the right person and all of a sudden it's clean and then a person leaves and gets a job somewhere else,” Schofield told The Times.
AFS did raise wages some, but they did so on their own dime and were actually “losing money,” Cox told board members.
“That’s part of the reason it's been difficult for this company to make it is because they have actually increased some of the pay rates over time just to get people, but then we didn't adjust them up,” Cox said.
In other words, the school district was contracted to pay AFS a certain amount, but it wasn’t enough to cover the wage increases needed to maintain adequate staffing. The AFS contract was finalized in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a spike in inflation and subsequent wage growth.
The Budds Group contract is potentially $3.5 million more than the contract with AFS, officials said. “It’s actually about $2.8 (million) more, but then there's some bonus opportunity in there if the buildings are clean, so it could be up to three-and-a-half (million),” Schofield said.
“Do we have any complaints with the folks we're currently using?” school board member Bill Thompson asked Schofield before a vote was taken on the new contract.
“Regular complaints,” Schofield said, before explaining the district’s decision to outsource its custodial services. “People harken back to a day and think, ‘Man, when we used to employ the custodians, all the buildings were clean.’ They're living in a different world than I'm living in. I mean, it's all dependent upon who they have in those buildings who the head custodian is. We have learned a lot over the last several years.”
He added: “We save seven digits plus a year outsourcing custodial services. And we have some buildings that do tremendously well, some that struggle. And I believe that's the way it will always be and it's the way it's always been. So, yes, we get some complaints.”
AFS Vice President Harold Angel would not allow The Times to interview any custodians, and he did not respond to requests for an interview.
Officials said the district is taking new measures to make sure schools are spick and span going forward.
“So we put in place now an evaluation system with two custodial evaluators that are going in every week,” Cox told board members. “And then also we have a better communication method with school staff back to the outsourced custodial group, and those are things that we've put in place that we will now require from any of our vendors from this point forward.”
Even when custodians manage to mop the floors and keep the toilets clean, the extra workload right now is simply unsustainable, officials said.
“Sometimes, even though you may have the coverage, and you may have a reasonably clean school, it just isn't a healthy situation,” Cox said. “So what we want to do is get fully staffed, and that's really our biggest goal.”