Jeff Kapcsos has led his staff through the pandemic to help keep the NCC community safe
As a deadly and mysterious virus swept across the globe, most of the NCC community sought refuge in remote work and virtual learning, but custodial staff supervisor Jeff Kapcsos and his crew carried on.
“You can’t clean somebody’s office from a computer,” says Kapcsos, who has worked with NCC’s custodial staff for close to 24 years.
In that time, he’s explored every corner of NCC’s sprawling facilities, from the basements to the rooftops and “rooms inside of rooms that nobody ever knows about,” but the pandemic introduced uncharted territory to his familiar work.
“It was a challenge at first trying to figure out what we needed to do and when we needed to do it,” Kapcsos says.
In May and June 2020, Kapcsos and his fellow custodial staff supervisors at NCC participated in a “train the trainers” program for the COVID-19 sanitation practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The supervisors were certified to train their respective staffs for the new protocol, which included a slew of additional procedures, safety measures and the use of special cleaning supplies.
Early in the pandemic, Kapcsos says he received many emails from faculty requesting their spaces to be extra clean. Despite fewer people being on campus, custodians faced a larger workload and they went to great lengths to eliminate any possible contamination.
“Even though they only had 25% of the work to do, it took them longer to do that work because of extra steps,” Kapcsos explains.
In the uncertain early part of the pandemic, surface transmission of the virus was a greater concern. Previously, custodians would vacuum the floor of a solitary office or infrequently-used room and empty the waste basket; new protocol called for every surface to be sanitized with cleaning products capable of killing coronavirus.
Before, custodians emptied each room’s waste basket into a larger, rolling trash can – leaving bags to be reused. The new method called for each bag to be discarded individually, tied with a special “gooseneck” knot to prevent the release of potentially hazardous particulates. Even dust mops were covered with plastic bags during transport between rooms.
The custodial staff also implemented the use of extra personal protective equipment – nitrile gloves, goggles, face shields, surgical and N-95 masks, aprons, scrub pants and shoe coverings that were frequently replaced. Getting dressed in this veritable suit of armor also required a considerable amount of time.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody was safe and we wanted to make sure the custodial staff felt safe, that we weren’t putting them in danger,” Kapcsos says.
“With all being said and never needing to go through something like this, I think it fell in place pretty well,” he says, calling the staff’s pandemic response a “team effort.”
Despite the extra work, some custodians did initially experience reduced hours. They helped one another maintain employment by rotating shifts. Some custodians were furloughed with pay for several months and a few went on unemployment, but no one quit because of the pandemic, Kapcsos says.
“They all stuck in there. They all took special training. They did step up and hang in there over COVID,” he says.
Even in normal times, not everyone is cut out for Kapcsos’ line of work.
Kapcsos has part-time employees who have been with the crew for 20 years, but other new employees have entered his office in tears within an hour of starting, unable to handle the job.
Besides the physical labor, many prospective employees would find difficultly maintaining the nocturnal schedule. Kapcsos’ typical shift starts at 8 p.m. and ends between 1 and 4 a.m., depending on the night’s work.
“Your body and your mind are used to sleeping at night, no matter how long you’ve been doing it,” he says. “You learn how to deal with it, but your body doesn’t get used to it.”
Kapcsos endured and was promoted to crew leader. After seven years, he became supervisor and initially was responsible for all NCC locations and over 50 employees. When Monroe Campus expanded, it hired its own custodial staff. Later, separate crews were enlisted to clean the dorms and the Fowler Center.
Now, Kapcsos oversees Main Campus with 25 part-time and six full-time employees. Before the custodial staff expanded, he was needed in too many places at once.
One night about 8 years ago, he got a call from an employee who was locked in a room at the Fowler Center. Kapcsos was at Monroe Campus and unable to provide immediate assistance. The trapped custodian kicked through the door’s ventilation plate to make his escape.
Kapcsos says he doesn’t get spooked being alone at night in the college’s cavernous buildings, but crew members have called him in a panic, startled by noises, believing that a trespasser was in the building. He checks on them and, so far, it’s always been a false alarm, usually just an air conditioner kicking on, he says.
Occasionally, unexpected incidents do occur, disrupting the custodians’ regular work.
Kapcsos estimates that he has experienced 100 water pipe breaks. The college has a maintenance crew, but when those breaks happen at night, it’s up to the custodians to track down and resolve the issue, doing their best to mitigate damage.
“We get our share of natural mishaps,” he says.
Kapcsos has witnessed many changes at NCC, including new locations and renovations. When he started, before Main Campus was updated, the custodians jokingly referred to it as “The Rock.”
“That’s what it looked like before they remodeled, you know?” he says.
Kapcsos moved to the Lehigh Valley from Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1989 with his wife Kathy, who was first of the spouses to be employed by NCC. She became director of institutional research and retired after 28 years with the college. She still teaches College Success online.
Before joining the custodial staff at NCC, Kapcsos worked at a plumbing warehouse. The high cost of childcare led him to reconsider his work schedule.
“Day care was killing us,” he says.
Once he started working nights, Kapcsos was free to look after his kids during the day. His family also took advantage of the child care services on campus.
“My kids grew up there,” he says.
All four of Kapcsos’ kids attended Reibman Hall Children’s Center on Main Campus. Later, they participated in the Horizons for Youth program and worked as dishwashers at Hampton Winds. Three of the siblings earned diplomas at NCC.
Kapcsos says the nighttime employment continues to work for him. He also works part time at Theis/Cornfeld Recycling Center on Illick’s Mill Road during the day, typically from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. His work schedule does not prevent him from pursuing other goals.
On August 11, Jeff and Kathy Kapcsos reached the milestone of going on a run for 1900 consecutive days.
“That’s over five years that we’ve run every day without missing a day,” he says.
The Kapcsoses have completed 5Ks, 10Ks and half-marathons, and plan to run their first full marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon, in November.
His routine does catch up with him, Kapcsos says.
“ … football games or something on at night, or try to sit down and watch a movie, and I’m out,” he says.
When on vacation, Kapcsos says he’ll sleep well for the first two or three nights, but after that, he finds himself lying awake, “looking at the ceiling,” he says. “I’m sure whenever I retire it’ll probably take me a good year to get back into the habit of sleeping at night and being up during the day.”
With NCC campuses fully reopening for the fall semester and the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, Kapcsos has his work cut out for him.
On a hot summer afternoon with just a few hours before another shift begins, Kapcsos will take a moment to relax in his pool.
“I’ll probably go hop on a float and just take a nap,” he says.