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January 8, 2009

A night in the life: FM staff tend to Pitt after dark

The majority of Pitt staff members work during the day, usually Monday through Friday. But for those who work night turn — and especially those who work rotating shifts — it’s a different world on campus.

Five staff members in Facilities Management recently discussed how their nontraditional schedules affect their personal and social lives, as well as their professional lives.

All five staff members — Joe LaRotonda and Nate McCoy, assistant managers for custodial services; Darwin Lane, custodial supervisor, and Joe Kosky and Bob Karabinos, operating engineers, maintain that their off-hour service is necessary to see that campus buildings are in good working order and to protect the engineering systems that ensure the smooth continuation of research projects, as well as to create a comfortable, safe and clean environment for the Pitt community. They also all agree that the atmosphere itself at night is tangibly different from the daytime.

Not surprisingly, there are some downsides to working an off-hour shift: Illness seems to be more common, given the disruption of normal eating and sleeping patterns that weaken the immune system, and social lives are challenged severely by unusual schedule obligations.

But they say that there also are positive aspects of their shifts, including avoiding rush hour traffic and finding readily available parking.

According to 30-year Pitt veteran Joe LaRotonda, who works a steady 11 p.m.-7 a.m. Sunday-Thursday schedule, most essential custodial services are rendered at night.

The night shift does the critical building areas: entrances, corridors, restrooms, classrooms, conference rooms. “I consider those the critical areas because those are the first areas that people see and that get used the most,”

LaRotonda said. “You can’t be cleaning classrooms during the day when there’s a class in them or a conference room that’s in use. We have to work around the University’s academic schedule.”

One consequence of night shift work is that it sometimes gives the custodians anonymity, he said. “The first thing that everybody sees when they come into work is the result of the night shift custodian who nobody knows.”

Sometimes, the day shift custodian even takes credit for the night shift worker’s cleaning. “I just get a kick out of that,” LaRotonda said. “You’d think the building’s occupants would realize that. But a lot of times they’re calling us up as the supervisors or managers and giving the daytime guy all the accolades” for work that’s been done by the night-turn crew.

LaRotonda began working at Pitt in 1977 as a driver for food services; a year later he was hired as a custodian for the 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. shift.

Now assistant manager of custodial services, he is in charge of approximately half the buildings on campus and oversees a dozen supervisors. He estimated that about 20 percent of his job is paperwork, including keeping track of payroll and filling equipment orders.

“The majority of my time is spent out in the field doing a checks-and-balance system,” LaRotonda said. Supervisors check on the custodians’ work and LaRotonda checks on the supervisors. “So we have a variety of eyes looking at the areas around campus. I’ll take a building a night. I don’t tell anybody which one. Are there footprints in the hall? Is there dust build-up on the ledges? Is there trash? I’ll go through the building, check restrooms, the corridors, the common areas, the entrance points.”

He keeps a daily log sheet with a quality checklist, ranking areas as “below standards,” “meets standards” or “above standards.”

LaRotonda also is responsible for summoning custodians for snow-clearing duty.

“A couple years ago, we incorporated using custodians for snow removal. So I have to make the judgment when they’re needed.” Because they are custodians and not grounds crew, some of them resent this duty, LaRotonda acknowledged.

“I get a hold of the supervisors over the walkie-talkie radio to get their people out, basically to do the front entrances and outside stairwells and go out to the sidewalk. Then I jump in the truck with Nate [McCoy] and we start delivering salt to the various places.”

While LaRotonda considers his job both important and satisfying, his 11 p.m.-7 a.m. shift is far from his preference.

“I loved the 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. shift which is my ideal shift for my natural biological clock: getting up at 4 and off work at 2:30 and being home before 3,” he said. In the early years he worked different shifts, but “sadly, I’ve been on the night shift pretty much for 20 years of the 30 I’ve been in Facilities.”

He acknowledged that his schedule likely was a factor in the failure of his first marriage. “She worked the day shift and we couldn’t spend a lot of time together,” LaRotonda said.

Nancy, his second wife, currently is not working outside the home and that makes it easier to coordinate their schedules, he added.

Adjusting his normal sleeping patterns has been a years’ long battle, he said.

“I try to sleep as soon as I get home, somewhere about 7:30 or 8. But I’m not always able to sleep. If I have to, I take a sleeping pill,” LaRotonda said. “I get up about 1 or 2 o’clock and then I’m up for the whole day. So, I get about five hours sleep.”

Similarly, adjusting his eating patterns has been a challenge.

“I usually don’t eat a real meal till about 5 or 6 o’clock in the afternoon, and we usually eat a breakfast then. Then we have another meal about 9 o’clock, and that’s dinner,” he said.

During his shift, he limits his eating to the occasional snack and lots of coffee. “If you eat a heavy meal on the night shift, it will put you out,” he said, something he’s learned from experience.

LaRotonda more or less maintains the same sleeping and eating patterns on the weekends. “I might go to bed around 4 or 5 in the morning on Saturdays, to get a little extra sleep,” he said.

Vacations, however, are a different matter, because after a few days off he reverts to his built-in biological patterns.

“Everything definitely changes. I go back to a ‘normal’ schedule,” he noted.

LaRotonda said there are some positives to working night turn. “The advantages right now are parking and no traffic coming in, no traffic going home. The roads are usually clear. I live in North Huntingdon and it takes me a half-hour to get to work. If I worked a daylight shift, I don’t even know how long it would take me,” he said.

Nate McCoy, LaRotonda’s counterpart, performs the same duties but on a slightly staggered shift. A 10-year Pitt staff veteran, McCoy works a steady 2-10 a.m. shift Monday-Friday.

Like LaRotonda, he oversees 13 supervisors who are accountable for the 220 or so employees in Facilities Management’s custodial and building services.

“My biggest responsibility is to ensure that our beats will be cleaned to departmental standards. But I also do payroll, I do ordering for the department and I do training for the custodial department,” McCoy said.

Rank-and-file custodians are trained for six months, then tested, a process that McCoy oversees.

“We also always trouble shoot. You want to be proactive. You never want to be in a reactionary posture to where complaints are coming in and you’re just responding to them. You want to have a detailed eye to be proactive. That comes with experience.”

McCoy primarily manages 10 buildings but is on call for problems that may arise campus-wide.

“My responsibility is the William Pitt Union, Posvar Hall, Mervis, Frick Fine Arts, Barco, the Cathedral, Bellefield, Stephen Foster, Craig Hall and the child development center. But I’m really responsible for the whole campus, so there are times I’ll go to different buildings like BST3 and Trees Hall,” he said. “I always have a radio, and my supervisors have my cell phone number. Every night I go through some of the buildings that my supervisors are accountable for. I check in with them, have one-on-one interaction. I do so many buildings a night; if I haven’t checked a building in a couple nights, I’ll go out and make sure I do that.”

McCoy began his tenure at Pitt as a custodial supervisor at the Cathedral of Learning working daylight. Switching to the night shift when he was promoted to assistant manager was no picnic.

“It was a major adjustment for my body. Normally, at 2 in the morning, I’m asleep; I’m in rest mode. Now my body is being asked to wake up and function at approximately 1 o’clock in the morning. It’s like night and day,” he joked.

“I basically had to retrain my body to function. Everything’s out of whack now. For example, I don’t know when to eat. I try not to eat at night, even though I’m up on my shift, when my body is burning energy. I tell myself not to eat, or if I eat, don’t eat heavy, because I don’t want to gain weight. I’ll brew a 12-cup pot of coffee and between Joe [LaRotonda] and myself, we’ll drink that. That’s part of our routine. I may also have a bottle of green tea and a bag of chips.

Normally, I’ll eat a couple of hours after I get home, about noon or so. And it’s more of a brunch-type thing.”

Typically, McCoy will have a bigger meal near traditional dinnertime — about the only thing normal in his schedule.

Sleeping also presents problems, he said, although McCoy counts himself fortunate for being able to get by with only about five hours of sleep, especially since he plays a number of roles away from the University. He’s working toward a master of divinity degree, taking three night classes at Geneva College and working Sundays at his church.

“When I go home about 10:30 [a.m.], I do not lie directly down. I’m still wound up. My body is still functioning to a degree. I just sit down and try to relax for a few moments. I turn on the television.

“I watch a lot of the ‘judge’ shows, because that’s what’s on at that hour,” McCoy said.

Following his noon meal, McCoy studies. “After a couple hours of studying, I’ll try to make myself sleep for a couple hours or so. It’s sometimes hard, because now my mind is functioning. It’s very difficult to make myself wind down.”

McCoy’s regular shift runs from the wee hours of Monday morning until 10 a.m. on Friday, but his workweek has ramifications for his weekends.

“On Friday and Saturday nights, I’m up. I may not be up at 2 o’clock but I’m definitely up by 3 [a.m.]. My body is used to being up. Around 3:30 I’m brewing coffee. I can’t go back to sleep; my body will not let me. So I go back to my books, back to preparing my sermons, doing those things I have to get done.”

McCoy agrees with LaRotonda that one advantage of the night shift is an easy commute.Pitt is a 10-minute ride at night from McCoy’s home in Wilkinsburg. “That’s an advantage. I don’t have to pay for a parking permit. I can park on the street,” he said.

There’s also a peacefulness to the nighttime campus that McCoy enjoys. “When I compare working in the Cathedral in the daylight hours as opposed to working during night turn, it’s different. There’s more of a peaceful, serene feel, instead of the hustle and bustle of everyone trying to get to the elevator. You have a different pace; you don’t have the rat-race mentality. Your senses are a little sharper.”

That different atmosphere with fewer distractions enables him to be more efficient, McCoy said.

“No one’s coming to my door saying: ‘I need this, I need that.’ The emails I catch up on and reply to when I first get to work, then I don’t have to worry about someone emailing me at me at that hour. It’s definitely a benefit for me: I know what I have to do, I have the time to do it and there’s less interference. Consequently, I can get more accomplished. With so much on my plate with all my other interests, that’s important to me.”

Darwin Lane, a custodial supervisor who reports to LaRotonda, has 13 buildings and 30 custodians in his charge. He works the same shift as LaRotonda, 11 p.m.-7 a.m.

Among his duties are checking critical building areas, establishing priorities for the custodians and training new staff to meet Facilities Management standards, he said.

“Wherever there’s a lot of research going on, I have to stay on top of that. My critical buildings are the BST3, Victoria Hall. Victoria is critical because it’s the nursing school and they do a lot of training. Their skill lab is an area that they always request that we have buffed up,” Lane said.

And with the ongoing Benedum Hall construction, maintaining control over dust has become a priority in that building, he added.

Paperwork, including maintaining the employees’ timesheets, also keeps Lane busy.

While he enjoys his job and his co-workers, he said there are some drawbacks to working the night shift.

“The biggest one is, I’m really a morning person. I’ve been here eight years on night shift,” Lane said. “I’m still not really used to it. I adjust to it. You could never get used to it, you can only adjust. And how well you adjust is based on how well you take care of your body.”

For Lane, that involves lots of vitamins and carefully watching his diet, especially while he’s working. “You have to stick to water, fruit, maybe a sandwich. Try not to eat the heavy stuff, like anything fried,” he said.

“When I get home after my shift I eat breakfast. I’m a breakfast person, whether it be a bowl of cereal, or hot cereal, pancakes or waffles, or eggs.”
Lane then reads the newspaper and checks his email for updates on his basketball teams.

“I coach basketball at Shadyside Academy, and I need to know if practice or a game is canceled, or if the site changed,” he said. “Once I see that, I’ll turn on the TV. Eventually, I’ll fall asleep, maybe about 9 o’clock. I’ll get up between 1 or 2 o’clock, so I get about four or five hours. That’s standard for me. I cannot sleep much longer than that. I find myself wide awake. Even if I don’t set my alarm, I wake up. Then I’ll get a meal about 6 or 7 p.m.”

His social life definitely is affected, he said. His fiancée works a day shift at West Penn Hospital, so coordinating their schedules is a challenge.

On the other hand, he agrees with other night-turn workers that the shift does have its advantages.

“I live in the Hill [District]. One advantage is not having to fight traffic, unless there’s a lot of things going on, like at the Petersen, then there’ll be traffic,” Lane said. “But, if nothing’s going on, you’ve got plenty of open spots. And as long as you’re out of here by 8 [a.m.], then you won’t get a ticket.”

Working the night shift also allows him to make early morning doctors’ appointments nearby. “I like that. I can still keep my parking space and go to the doctors around here in Oakland, instead of going home and having to come back and look for parking,” Lane said. “Or I can go straight to the Giant Eagle and it’s not crowded at that time. You’re in and out. It’s a good schedule for my coaching basketball,” he added.

Lane recounted two incidents during his tenure that were unlikely to occur on other shifts.

“There’s a different feel to the nighttime. You’re expecting to be the only person in the building and you can get surprised,” he said.

Once he was caught off-guard by a campus police officer who was responding to a report of an intruder in one of Pitt’s buildings. “She came in with her gun pulled. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’re going to get somebody shot.’ I named her ‘Itchy Fingers,’” Lane said.

Another time, he was summoned by a female custodian. “She went in to clean the restroom in Benedum and there was a guy in there who had a hammock set up between the door and the stall. He was in there sleeping.”

The custodian guarded the door until Lane arrived.

“When I went in, he had already jumped up, taken the hammock down and crawled up into the ceiling. The tile in the ceiling was missing,” Lane said. “We called the Pitt police, and one of them crawled up there, but they never found him.”

Joe Kosky and Bob Karabinos are among a handful of operating engineers whose rotating work shifts make it difficult to establish any kind of a schedule.
“Sometimes, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” Kosky said. “We start out on a Tuesday, come on at 11 p.m., and we do seven days of that. So we finish up the following Tuesday morning at 7 a.m., and then we come back out Thursday, 3 to 11 [p.m.] for seven days. Then we get a Thursday and Friday off and we start out Saturday with our six days of daylight from [7 a.m. to 3 p.m.]. Are you confused yet?” he said.

Following their daylight shift, the pair get four days off, then begin the cycle of shifts again.

Karabinos said, “By the sixth day of a shift, you’re starting to get used to it. You start to sleep a little longer. The first few days, you might sleep four or five hours. The sixth day, you might sleep maybe a good seven hours. That seventh day, I try to stay up, to get that full two days off. And then by Thursday, you come in at 2 o’clock, you’re ready to go — and then my gosh, you hit the wall.”

Kosky said, “When we’re on what we call the midnight shift, that’s the toughest. Especially in the summertime when after your shift, the sun’s up, you get that second wind as soon as you pull in the driveway at home and then you can’t go to sleep. The kids are acting up, the neighbor decides it’s time to get the weed-eater out and you just want to kill him.”

Karabinos said, “But you hate to take off a night shift, too, or call off sick, because somebody has to work it. If it’s one of your buddies, you feel guilty.”

The two engineers work in tandem, each with about half the campus buildings under his supervision. Both are licensed engineers. Kosky has associate-level training as an electrician. Karabinos has 32 years of experience working at the Carnegie Museums as an engineer and mechanic.

Karabinos said, “We share the same schedule and we share the same job. Joe does the north campus, and I do most of the south campus. There’s no overlap, but there are plenty of instances where we’ll help each other, like if there’s a catastrophe.”

Such an incident happened on his second night at Pitt, said Karabinos, who has been on staff for two and a half years.

“It was in Langley Hall,” he said. “I got a call that there was water coming from a ceiling in an office. I got there and I don’t have a key, the custodian didn’t have a key and the [campus] police are standing there and they don’t have a key. My partner showed up — Joe — no key.”

Ever resourceful, Kosky then “carded” the door open with a credit card. “I asked the police for permission first,” Kosky said.

Four-year veteran Kosky oversees 21 buildings north of Fifth Avenue and Karabinos has 25 buildings south of Fifth, including the bioengineering center on Technology Drive and the McGowan Institute on the South Side.

Kosky said, “We’re in touch constantly. The way we look at it is we’re the University’s cheapest insurance, because when we’re here at 3 a.m. till the morning, there is only one of us at both the north and south of the campus. And problems always find us: We’ve got the radio, we’ve got cell phones, we’ve got the pager. Pretty soon we’ll be wearing shock belts,” he quipped.

“We get anything from elevator entrapments, fire alarms, water leaks, gas leaks, steam leaks,” Kosky continued. “When there’s a problem, they call us. We really are the first responders. They call us first, and we call out the appropriate trades.”

Karabinos added, “That’s only if we can’t rectify the problem ourselves.”

Kosky said, “Yes, only if we surrender. We don’t just walk away either. If we get called in for a water leak, for example, a lot of times on 3-11 you have a small custodial staff, so sometimes we’ll stay and help, we’ll squeegee the water, we’ll do whatever it takes to get the situation under control. We have to rely on each other. It’s like a good marriage: I know his strong points and his weak points and he knows mine.”

Speaking of marriage, both men maintain that the main reason the rotating shifts are manageable is their respective stay-at-home wives.

“You really need an understanding wife,” Kosky said. “My wife does everything. She cooks, cleans, schedules the appointments, orders my pills, everything. When I come home it’s: ‘Hi, honey, I’m home. What’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner?’ — if I can even remember what meal it is.”

Karabinos added, “Same with my wife. She does everything and she even finds time to spoil me.”

Regardless of which shift they’re on, the two men first meet with the people they’re relieving to review the status of any problems on the previous shift. They then hop in a van and go to the Melwood Avenue facility where Pitt’s trades offices and equipment are located to make sure that facility is secured.

Only after that do they separate and head for their priority buildings.

Kosky said, “We religiously have a routine where we check specific equipment and we’re talking anything from air handlers, chillers, hot water heat exchangers, compressors — we check everything. We have to know a lot about building systems, and every building is different,” he said.

For Kosky, those priorities include the chilled water plant in the Petersen Events Center, the boilers in Trees Hall and Falk School and the air-conditioning equipment in several of the research-oriented buildings, including the Graduate School of Public Health and Chevron Science Center. (Dedicated engineers are assigned to Scaife Hall and the Biomedical Science Tower 3, among other research-oriented areas.)

“Then I check my secondary buildings, those on O’Hara Street, where I have air compressors but no chillers and no boilers,” Kosky said.

Similarly, Karabinos first checks the chiller plant on the roof of Posvar Hall and the air-conditioning system in the Clapp-Langley-Crawford complex.

Each keeps a log book of the shift’s activities and, once a week, submits a log on the lighting systems, both inside and out, for their areas.

Karabinos said, “We really are the eyes and ears of the University, from light switches and drippy faucets to complicated building systems.”

Kosky added, “A lot of times I’ll admit it’s luck. For example, I just happened to be in an equipment room [last month] and a pipe let go. Thank God I was standing right there and I was able to secure the water and get the valves off and nip it in the bud. When I got here I was told: ‘You’re nameless, you’re faceless, you’re the cellar-dwellers,’ because we’re in the dark shadows, we’re in the corners, we’re really mostly unseen.”

“Until they need us,” Karabinos said. “And then we’re pretty popular.”

“Like I said, we’re the University’s cheapest insurance,” Kosky said.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 9

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