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Florida School District Requires Fit Custodians

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Some of the friendliest faces I remember from my high school days were the school custodians. They kept the school clean and were really part of the family. Students would chat with them in the halls each and every day. Well, here's a story about what it takes to become a custodian. In Orlando, you have to take a fitness test. Many custodians get injured on the job, which can cost school districts a lot of money. So schools in Orlando are becoming more selective about who they hire. That means leaving some positions open, even at a time when many people are looking for work. Sarah Gonzalez of StateImpact-Florida has more.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: If you think picking up after a couple of teenagers is bad. Try 3,700 teenagers. That's what custodian Sylvia Moya does. She drives a golf cart around Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, making stops to clean up after students.

SYLVIA MOYA: (Spanish spoken)

GONZALEZ: Moya says she removes graffiti, cleans the bathrooms and lunchrooms, picks up trash.

MOYA: Mucho, mucho.

GONZALEZ: And these days she's working harder than usual. The school is short four custodians. Two positions are still vacant and two others got hurt on the job and are out on worker's compensation. Janitors and building cleaners have one of the highest rates of work-related injuries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They miss more work days because of on-the-job injuries than police officers.

TONY RODRIQUEZ: We have a lot of lifting.

GONZALEZ: That's head custodian Tony Rodriguez.

RODRIQUEZ: Student desks, student teacher desks, we're moving classrooms, changing furniture out, you know, it's not a easy task.

GONZALEZ: School custodians hurt their backs lifting furniture. They burn themselves with cleaning chemicals and machines. This summer, a janitor at Dr. Phillips High broke his arm after slipping on freshly waxed floors, even though he was wearing the right boots for the job.

The Orange County school district pays out about half a million dollars a year in worker's compensation, just for custodians. So, the district is now requiring candidates to pass a physical fitness test before they can get hired. Rodriguez had to take the test a couple months ago.

RODRIQUEZ: I didn't know what to expect. It was like a machine.

GONZALEZ: People who want the job must show up to a physical therapy center, where they get strapped into a chair that tests strength. The machine takes your arm all the way back and you have to pull it forward as hard as you can, as a 50 pound weight pushes against you. Then you do the same thing in the backwards motion. Five reps on each arm and each leg. Rodriguez says it's kind of like lifting weights in reverse.

RODRIQUEZ: If you take this test and you have a bad back, you're definitely not going to make it. You got to concentrate. Because if you think you're too strong for it, it ain't going to work because we had big guys fail this test.

GONZALEZ: And that has principals like Gene Trochinski a little frustrated.

GENE TROCHINSKI: It's been a little more difficult to get the custodians through the process, because sometimes they get everything completed and then don't pass that physical test.

GONZALEZ: More than a quarter of the candidates who take the test, don't pass. District hiring manager Carol Kindt says they're trying to address the problem by explaining what the test is like to candidates. In the meantime, she's had to get creative, trying to recruit parents as they wait in line to register their kids for class.

CAROL KINDT: So we were giving coffee and cookie and also advertising at the same time: We Need Custodians. So that we could, you know, if they wanted to they could walk right into our door and sit down and apply.

GONZALEZ: In the first year of the fitness test, work-related injuries among new custodians went down from 34 injuries to just 13, saving the district more than $50,000 in worker's compensation. Enough to hire one full-time teacher.

For NPR news, I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

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GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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