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Worthington, for one, is sympathetic to the plight of Chapot and his fellow gardeners — especially after he saw firsthand how bad the problem is when the gardener took him through campus one morning. "He wants to be proud of the job that he does," the councilman said of Chapot. "But it's hard to be proud when you're dealing with an impossible situation. It's hard to be proud when it's structured for failure."
Shaff, too, understands the pressures her department's staff is under. Where the university used to have weekend trash shifts and twice-daily Sproul cleanups, budget cuts have ended both programs. "The amount of work hasn't changed," she said, "there are just fewer people to do it" — a remarkably candid statement in a profession that's typically based on spin. "So the workload does land on the shoulders of the remaining people."
Literally. At 57, Chapot is among the oldest gardeners on campus, but even guys a decade or two younger are having health problems: Of the five groundskeepers interviewed for this story, all experience occasional to constant pain throughout their shoulders, neck, and back. The youngest, an athletically built man in his early thirties who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution from his higher-ups, said he often feels pain in his shoulders and worries about what will happen to his body when he gets older. Another, a fifteen-year veteran of the department, experiences regular soreness in his shoulders, which he works through. In sum, Chapot said he knows of several rotator cuff injuries among the staff, as well as more severe problems. "Just yesterday, I talked to one of my gardeners and he said, 'I'm falling apart.' They're driving us to the limit."
To be sure, gardening and groundskeeping have always been, by nature, physically demanding jobs. But some employees say the recent changes have put an extra physical strain on them. And in Chapot's view, the university is merely doing short-term damage control without making an effort to address the long-term, systemic health problems presented by a sped-up work schedule and smaller staff. "When something goes snap or pop or you tear a ligament or your lower back goes out, they'll pay for it [through worker's comp] — but they're not doing anything to relieve us of the burden and go back to the workload we were hired at. They keep going, 'This is the new normal.' "
At the same time, it's not just the volume but also the substance of work that's contributing to on-the-job injuries. "We used to do about two hours heavy labor, then two or three medium labor, then two light — you know, sometimes you're pulling weeds, other times you're trimming hedges, other times you're emptying trash," Chapot said. "Now, it's nothing but repetitive lifting of trash containers. It's killing us physically. I could garden until I'm a hundred years old, but being a laborer is not something people who are aging" — even aging well, like him —"can handle."
Not least because the university's cans themselves appear to have been designed without ergonomics in mind. The worst offenders — the rectangular, camel-colored cement containers that dot Sproul Plaza — are designed so that the only way to empty them is for staffers to lean over and pull them up and out vertically several feet off the ground, in a motion that severely strains the shoulders — especially if, as is often the case, the can is heaping with trash, or is heavy with rainwater or spilled beverages. Chapot said he filed an Occupational Safety and Health claim about the bins; to this day, many haven't been replaced. He was told it was because of cutbacks.
The irony is that all this — the pressure, the injuries, the stress — is far from what Chapot and his fellow gardeners thought they were getting themselves into when they were hired. According to Chapot, his job description states that as a gardener, he's to spend about 25 percent of his time doing what's called "beat policing" — that is, emptying surface-level trash cans and picking up ground trash in his sector: the southeast part of campus, including Sproul Plaza and Edwards Stadium. Chapot has a degree in plant biology from San Francisco State University and previously ran a private gardening business, so he came to the university because it presented a way to do what he loves without the stress of running a small business. And when he started on campus, Chapot said he typically did an hour or two of garbage pick-up, sometimes only three days a week. But now, that's become four to six hours every day.
"Every three months or so, our bosses come by and scold us: 'Don't take long lunches, don't duck out ten minutes early.' So I raised my hand and I said, 'Last year, when I was injured, the university held me very strictly to the job description. So why can't I do the same thing and hold the university to the job description and stop throwing trash out after two hours [each day]?' He said, 'Oh, we're gonna rewrite the job description.'"
To be fair, some gardeners said they don't mind the shifting responsibilities of the job, and two actually said they like trash pick-up more than landscaping, as a matter of personal preference. But they all agreed that this is not what they signed on for. One of Chapot's co-workers, who has more than two decades of landscaping experience and has been at UC Berkeley for many years, said he's enjoying the job less and less as trash collection becomes a higher and higher priority. "It's difficult," he said. "I love doing landscaping. But now I'm not doing so much of what I really want to do or what I was hired to do."
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