WHEN EVERYONE ELSE IS GONE CHAPMAN’S FACILITIES WORKERS KEEP THE CHAPMAN GHOST TOWN ALIVE

Chapman facilities management worker Matt Kelly misses student life on campus. Photo by Luca Ev

It’s no longer rush hour for Chapman facilities worker Matt Kelly. 

In a normal semester, he’d be drooped behind the wheel of his eggshell-white facilities management cart, stuck for minutes upon minutes in the gridlock traffic of students dashing from class to class.

But that was then. Before COVID-19 shut down a vibrant campus. Now Kelly could do wheelies and not run into anybody. It’s now like he’s a Fast and Furious character on his way to move furniture. 

The emptiness, however, is not necessarily a benefit.

I still don’t like having nobody around,” Kelly says. “I prefer everything to be normal, and just live life. Be around people.” 

Most times, facilities management workers blend quietly into the background of Chapman life. Now, with the university shut down, the 60-plus workers on campus each day stand out.

And what really makes the workers happy: They’re still employed.

A sign outside Chapman’s Waltmar Theatre welcomes students back to campus, as at least a few in-person classes resumed on Oct. 19. Photo by Luca Evans.

In March, when classes first moved online, workers were worried for their jobs. Chapman had taken an automatic pandemic-induced financial hit.

“I was like, ‘we’re going to be the first ones to go,’” Kelly said. 

President Daniele Struppa noticed skyrocketing levels of unemployment across the country, and wanted to avoid any contribution to those figures. He began working on a plan to save as many Chapman jobs as possible. 

“Some parents wrote to me, especially at the beginning of the crisis, saying that they didn’t understand why we were cutting other areas and why I was so intent on saving staff positions,” Struppa said. “I think you have a responsibility to your workers. These are people that work and make the institution strong in the good times; when the bad times hit, you have a responsibility to that.” 

That described responsibility, however, did not necessarily extend to Sodexo workers at Chapman. 

Eateries such as Einstein’s Bagels and Jamba Juice have been sealed off by tall metal gates during the university’s closure, specks of dust collecting on their countertops. Eric Cameron, resident district manager of Chapman restaurant services, told Chapbook Magazine that Sodexo had to make workforce reductions as a result of the pandemic, something he said impacted 120 employees previously working on Chapman campuses. Only 30 remain affiliated with the university. 

“Wherever possible, we temporarily reassigned staff to open Sodexo sites outside of Chapman,” Cameron wrote in an email to The Panther. “We are also placing Sodexo staff where possible with various parts of the supply chain–such as grocery stores and warehouses–that need extra help.” 

According to Struppa, sub-contractors at Chapman operate independently – the university doesn’t directly employ workers, rather paying Sodexo directly for their services. He asserted Sodexo’s situation “has nothing to do with us.” 

No Sodexo worker has been seen working the counter of Jamba Juice for months. Photo by Luca Evans.

Meanwhile, at-risk Chapman facilities staff with preexisting health conditions were given a paid leave of absence until the end of July. Kelly had a month and a half of paid time off, while others such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician Vincent Rodriguez were given two weeks. 

But as those workers resumed their operations on an empty campus, they found their jobs didn’t change much. Rodriguez, Kelly, and Vice President of Facilities Management Rick Turner all said their day-to-day was mostly the same. 

Rodriguez, in particular, has likely been as busy on campus as much as anybody over the past few months – working on installing heavy-duty filters in buildings and maintaining electricity, water and air conditioning systems. The difference, however, from his normal operation is not having the chance to set up large events or watch students walk into class; Rodriguez even misses when they’d complain about it being too cold, because he’s gotten so accustomed to the emptiness. 

As more students slowly filter onto campus, this strange blip in university life may fade into the past. Rodriguez’s days of being shocked to see someone else in the hallway are coming to an end.

“It’s weird seeing more people coming back on campus,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like re-getting occupied; it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s more people again!’”

While Chapman University was seemingly abandoned for much of the spring, summer and fall, white Facilities Management carts still regularly popped up around campus. Photo by Luca Evans.

As more students slowly filter onto campus, this strange blip in university life may fade into the past. Rodriguez’s days of being shocked to see someone else in the hallway are coming to an end.

Yet, given the months staff have spent as Chapman’s lone in-person representatives, the reintroduction to normal life might be just as big of a shock as its initial loss. 

“It’s weird seeing more people coming back on campus,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like re-getting occupied; it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s more people again!’”

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