Special OPS: A behind-the-scenes look at DePaul Facility Operations crew keeping campus clear

Walking to early morning classes on campus during winter, students and staff are welcomed to pristine shoveling and salted sidewalks, despite above average snowfall amounts this year.

But nothing is different for the DePaul Facility Operations crew. They brave the elements to ensure that all campuses are ready by 7 a.m., regardless of conditions.

Since they work early mornings to make DePaul a safe place for everyone, one may assume their job goes unnoticed.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Joshua Bielecki, a custodial grounds crew worker at DePaul for six years, said. “They see it, they appreciate it, they let us know.”

After four or five days in a row working in the snow, Bielecki said sometimes it just takes a simple email to raise their spirits.

“I’ll print out an email and show the whole crew – it’s really great to see that,” he said.

One of the most challenging parts for crews this winter is the long hours. Depending on conditions, facility operations workers can come in as early 4 or 5 a.m. and then continue to work a full shift.

“During weeks where we get multiple overnight snows or larger accumulations, this can be especially taxing,” Richard Wiltse, director of Loop Campus facility operations, said. “Then at the end of the day, they still need to go home and address the snow at their own homes.”

This year crews have already put in considerable overtime. There have been about half a dozen times where crews started at 4 a.m. and some days they haven’t left until 7 p.m. Any shift more than eight hours long is overtime, and there have been many 12-hour shifts this year, Lincoln Park Facility Operations Manager Richard Matulewicz said.

“We all know this is the winter season, it’s no surprise that it’s going to snow, so we’re prepared for it,” Bielecki said. “We know this time of year we’re going to go a little earlier and later. It’s just the job we do.”

The extreme cold has its ups and downs. Colder temps mean fewer people walking on sidewalks, allowing snow blowers and other equipment to clear snow quickly. On the downside, the weather can be extremely taxing on the staff, making them start earlier in the morning to allow for more frequent breaks, Wiltse said.

Most noticeably, the extreme temperatures impact the use of ice-melt products. As of Jan. 31, the university used about 100,000 pounds of salt on the Lincoln Park Campus this winter. That same amount of salt was used the entire winter last year, “and we are just halfway through the winter,” Lincoln Park Facility Operations Director John Zaccari said. Facility operations use about 12,500 pounds of salt when clearing the Lincoln Park Campus each time. Due to a salt shortage, facility operations have turned to calcium chloride ice melt, but this alternate is difficult to clean off floors, Matulewicz said.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the lowest recorded temperature for January was 16 below zero Jan. 6, while January 2013’s lowest temperature was negative one, according to the National Weather Service.

While braving the weather, more injuries among facility operations crew have occurred this year compared to last year. Two Lincoln Park crewmembers are currently out due to injury and there have been a total of five out this season for injuries. The most common injuries are often hernias or due to slipping. Last year, no crewmember was out for a substantial injury, Zaccari said.

O’Hare recorded 33.7 inches of snow this January compared to the normal average of 10.8 inches. All the snow required DePaul to bring in an excavation contractor to remove large amounts of snow on campus, Vice President of Facility Operations Bob Janis said.

“It was something we had to do in order to maintain as many parking spaces as possible,” Janis said. “You can only keep so much snow in a lot before you begin to lose a lot of parking.” The snow was removed to two separate lots on campus and Janis did not disclose the cost to the university but that the company “treated us well, response and cost wise.”

With endless pounds of salt and extra hours for crews, Janis said that their budget is getting used up much faster.

“We have definitely run through more budget faster than the last few years,” Janis said. “Longer hours and wages paid, more ice melt product more natural gas burn and cost to keep buildings put to proper temperatures.”

Both campuses utilize several crew members to reach their goal of a cleared campus by 7 a.m. For the Loop Campus, the snow removal crew varies from six to eight staff members depending on the amount of snowfall expected. They also have the option to hold over five members of the night cleaning crew to assist with snow, to bring the total to 13 staff working on snow removal.

The Lincoln Park Campus has about 15 people on the grounds crew that are primarily in charge of snow removal. They use a variety of equipment, including several Bobcat tractors, allowing them to be covered and not completely braving the elements. The facility operations crew members on both campuses are union workers that are employed by DePaul.

Bielecki said he has become used to the cold.

“We bundle up – they supply us with heaters for our hands – so if we’re out there for an extended period of time it doesn’t beat us up too bad,” Bielecki said. “I’m normally inside a Bobcat, so the only thing I really have to worry about is my feet getting cold.”

No matter the temperature or weather conditions, the facility operations crew will be outside clearing the snow, and their work does not go unseen.

“The (facility operations) staff at both campuses are the best examples of dedication and caring that I could ever have hope to be a part of in my career,” Janis said. “To the person, they work hard day in and day out and truly, I mean truly care about the students and taking the best possible care of them.”