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Arizona State janitors swept up by recession

Hotel workers in New York.

BOB MOON: It's a bittersweet back-to-school time for the country's largest public university. At Arizona State, like too many other schools, the axe has fallen on more than 1,000 jobs at ASU since the financial crisis began.

KJZZ's Peter O'Dowd takes a look at how budget cuts and layoffs aren't so academic for some workers.


PETER O'DOWD: In the 11 years that Beatriz Roman worked at ASU, she waxed the floors and dusted the insides of five buildings. She even knew exactly how much toilet paper each building needed. Eight rolls, for every floor. Then, at the very end of last school year --

BEATRIZ ROMAN: The lady, she comes and she says, oh. I have bad news.

That lady was an ASU administrator.

ROMAN: Everybody lose their job. Everybody's working only two more weeks.

The university laid off its entire custodial staff. All 191 were offered jobs with private companies that would take over ASU's cleaning duties.

ROMAN: After this, I'm depressed. I'm very depressed.

Roman is a widow and the mother of a teenager. But she turned down the offer. In fact, only three people took the job. Custodians say the pay and vacation days were less. Health insurance premiums were more expensive. Plus, there were no state retirement benefits, and if Roman accepted the work, she'd lose her university severance package. That pays $1,100 bucks a month, the same as her previous salary after taxes. With a pet parakeet chirping behind her, I ask what happens when the money runs out in November.

ROMAN: Good question. Good question. I need find job. Soon.

A summer break has passed since the layoffs. Now more than 70,000 students are returning to a university that has changed a lot in recent years.

RHIAN STOTTS: It hit our department particularly strongly.

Rhian Stotts is an anthropology graduate student.

STOTTS: We all had formed a relationship with Beatriz and felt she was someone we were going to miss and help support.

Thirty-one professors from her school wrote to the president's office. The letter said terminating the most vulnerable people in low-paying jobs did not reflect ASU community values when those in higher-paying jobs were unaffected. Archeology professor Ben Nelson.

BEN NELSON: People who were made to pay are people who don't have a lot of voice. If we want to think of the university as a microcosm of society or the way you'd like society to be, then this doesn't seem to fit the picture.

Nelson and others said they would have taken furloughs to save the custodians' jobs.

MORGAN OLSEN: When you have a furlough, that's a temporary savings.

Chief Financial Officer Morgan Olsen says since 2008, the university has endured $190 million in state budget cuts. At the same time, student enrollment has soared. In all, ASU laid off 1,300 people.

OLSEN: It's just implicit that you'll have difficult decisions to make, and you can't continue to do everything you've always done in the way that you've previously done it.

Olsen says ASU will likely avoid further job cuts this school year.

ROMAN: Hi baby!

And if that's correct, Beatriz Roman was among the last to go. She left ASU with a pile of letters wishing her well, and an extra $5,000 dollars raised by professors and students. She'll use the money to catch up on several months of overdue mortgage payments.

ROMAN: Beautiful people. I love these persons a lot.

And that's why the start of the school year is so painful.

ROMAN: It's hard. It's duro.

It's hard to drive by the campus, she says. Its buildings remind her of the people inside.

In Tempe, Ariz., I'm Peter O'Dowd for Marketplace.

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