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As Diversity Takes Center Stage, Service Workers Push For Better Wages, More Protections

As civil unrest and inequality rivet the nation, America's largest union of building maintenance workers is pushing for higher wages and better protections.

Tuesday was "Justice for Janitors Day," the anniversary of a 1990 incident in which protesting janitors were beaten by Los Angeles police. The event sparked union membership and eventually, reforms.

The Miami Tower

In Miami, in conjunction with the 32BJ SEIU (Service Employees Industrial Union), janitors who clean a landmark Miami office tower commemorated the day by filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleging they were sprayed with an unknown chemical while on the job. They organized a caravan to bring attention to the incident, but also to what it calls poverty wages, lack of paid sick time and inadequate cleaning supplies and protective gear. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a janitor was $13.19 per hour, or $27,430 per year, in 2019.

Looking at Miami specifically, a November report by 32BJ SEIU and the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge found that Miami janitorial wages grew by 1.6% over two decades. Only 10% of Miami's 40,000-plus janitorial workforce is white. 

"During that same time, real wages for lessors of real estate, portfolio management (including real estate asset management), and commercial building construction have gone up by 29%, 28%, and 16% respectively," the report found.

The report called out Miami's three biggest owners of office space over 100K SF: TIAA, Deutsche Bank and Ponte Gadea, a private investment firm controlled by the owner of the Zara clothing line. Janitors in their Miami buildings make as little as $8.46 to $9 per hour, the union and UCLA found.

SFM Services is the cleaning company hired to service The Miami Tower, a 47-story office building designed by I.M. Pei's architectural firm, which opened in 1987, according to SEIU. LaSalle purchased the property in 2010 for $105.5M, then sold it in 2016 for $220M to Sumitomo Corporation of Americas, its current owner.

Four janitors allege that on May 15, SFM Services fumigated the building with an unknown chemical spray. The cleaners say they felt burning sensations in their eyes and had trouble breathing, but the company refused to say what chemical they were exposed to.

Two SFM workers, along with three janitors who work for Greene Kleen at Virgin Miami Central, also say they were given poor quality gloves that tear easily, and that they had to provide their own coronavirus masks until recently. Neither company provides paid sick time, the SEIU says. One of the janitors said she is being paid $8.56 an hour. 

Ana Tinsley, an SEIU spokesperson, said building owners and operators could stop outsourcing and instead bring on cleaning staff to company payroll and provide benefits and vacations like they do other employees. Subcontracted janitors in the Miami metro area make $4,331 less in annual earnings than non-subcontracted janitors, the November report shows.

Tinsley acknowledged, however, that given complex investment and property-management structures in place today, that is probably not likely. At minimum, she said, owners and managers should only hire cleaning companies that have quality standards and worker protections in place and allow workers to organize without retaliation.

Last year, after some janitors were threatened and one fired by SFM for organizing, they filed Unfair Labor Practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. The company settled both, one for $6,858, the Miami Herald reported. In 2018 at the Westland Mall in Hialeah, Tinsley said, SFM refused to retain 24 janitors who had been involved with union activity. Following an NLRB complaint, SFM denied wrongdoing but ended up paying $65K to the 24 workers in a settlement.

"It's not just a matter of raising wages or good benefits," Tinsley said. It's important for cleaning staff to know that they are able to organize, have a seat at the negotiating table, and can speak up when they need supplies or equipment to clean properly.

"All of these things are beneficial for the tenants, too," she added.

SFM did not respond to a request for comment, but denied wrongdoing to the Miami New Times. Cira Figueroa, owner of Greene Kleen, said she wasn't aware of employees complaining about a lack of supplies.

"They have masks that are washable, with the logo of the company, plus they had disposable gloves," she said.

As for compensation and benefits, she said Greene Kleen's offerings are in line with industry standards.