D.C. area office cleaners fight for better pay and benefits

(Michael Temchine/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - Baltimore office cleaner Frances Smith, 55, struggles to pay for health care while supporting her ill mother and a grandson.

Each weeknight, after the lawyers and financial planners have gone home, Walter Ramirez enters a 1980s-vintage glass office tower in Alexandria to begin his race against the clock.

He and eight other cleaners have four hours to do the same amount of vacuuming, trash collection and other janitorial tasks that just a few years ago took 14 people. He would happily work more hours if he could, he said; as a part-timer, he is paid $9 an hour and has scant health-care benefits.

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“There is so much to do,” he said through an interpreter. “We have to rush.”

Ramirez is one of 12,000 office cleaners in Washington, Maryland and Virginia who are threatening to strike when their contract expires at midnight Oct. 15. At stake are wage increases and health insurance.

The cleaning companies, represented by the Washington Service Contractors Association, say they are rebuffing union demands because they have been caught short by the still-floundering economy. The current wages and benefits “reflected the robust economy that existed when the 2007 agreement was signed,” the association said a statement. Since then, the companies, and the building owners and managers who hire them, have “been under intense pressure to hold down costs.” They are asking to keep the contract as is, at least for the first year.

But the cleaners’ union points out that the building owners who pay their wages are having their best year since the recession hit. This is especially true in Washington, which has one of the strongest commercial real estate markets in the nation. The union is asking for wage increases, fewer staffing cuts and health-care benefits for more workers. Only about a third of the office cleaners in the area are full time and receive health benefits, according to the union.

The contract talks are taking place amid a growing public debate over income inequality that has fueled the Occupy Wall Street movement. Labor unions, in throwing their support behind the protests, raise the question: In an economy in which corporations and the wealthy are bouncing back faster than everyone else, will people at the bottom of the economic ladder get to share the benefits of the recovery with those at the top?

Almost all of the office cleaners in Washington have been represented by 32BJ, a union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, since the late 1990s, following the union’s Janitors for Justice campaign. It has gone on strike before. One 1996 strike lasted six months.

A union-backed rally in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor last week, meant to highlight the cleaners’ contract dispute, looked like a scene from a documentary that could be called “The Recovery That Wasn’t.”

As members of a thin Occupy Baltimore encampment folded blankets and engaged in other housekeeping, a couple of hundred union members clad in matching purple T-shirts swarmed the opposite side of the square. There were speeches, noisemakers and signs that read, “This isn’t class warfare, it’s class self-defense,” and, “Eat the Rich. They’re Gluten Free.”

Nearby was 100 E. Pratt Street, a skyscraper finished in the early 1990s at the tail end of another real estate boom. Frances Smith, 55, one of the protesters, has cleaned bathrooms at 100 E. Pratt for 11 years. Since her other part-time job in a Catholic school cafeteria ended three years ago, she has survived solely on her $10.99-an-hour cleaning job.

Five years ago, she found out she had high blood pressure after gingivitis caused her teeth to fall out and she went to get them replaced. She just finished paying for the dental work.

Smith, who supports a grandson and her ailing 86-year-old mother, said she would take more work hours if she could. When she had two jobs, she brought home $900 every two weeks. Now, she makes closer to $300.

Just before the rally, she sat inside her West Baltimore rowhouse, one of two occupied houses in a stretch of abandoned ones, holding her blood pressure medicine, which costs $50. “The doctor told me I can’t run out of this stuff,” she said. “But sometimes, you can’t help it when you can’t afford it.”

In the negotiations, which began Sept. 8, 32BJ has made wage increases and health insurance major sticking points. It wants to increase the number of workers who are full time, which would give them full health-care benefits. The union has 5,000 members in the District, nearly 4,000 in Northern Virginia, more than 1,500 in Montgomery County and more than 700 in Baltimore.

The cleaning companies they work for range from medium-size regional firms to national behemoths. During the recession, profit margins for many firms went from modest to razor-thin.

The huge real estate companies they work for, however, have seen their vacancy rates go down and rents go up, said Hugh F. Kelly, a commercial real estate expert who teaches at New York University and produces analyses for property owners and the union. Kelly estimates the cost of cleaning services represents only a fraction — about 8 percent — of the operating costs at top-of- the- line office buildings in the Washington area.

Vornado Realty Trust, one of the building owners that would be affected by a cleaners’ strike in Washington, reported better-than-expected earnings in August. The next day, Mortimer Zuckerman, chief executive of Boston Properties, another major D.C. office building owner that could be hit by a cleaners’ strike, told analysts on a conference call that although the prospect of better times for the larger economy “certainly doesn’t look promising . . . what is . . . relatively very good are the commercial office buildings in major cities, particularly the cities that Boston Properties, not by accident of course, focused on.”

Building owners are still nervous about the future, though. Industry insiders point out that although rents have increased, major customers such as law firms are still shrinking.

Most of the cleaners in the Washington-Baltimore region are Central American immigrants. The vast majority clean offices part time and work another job, although those second jobs are also becoming harder to find and hold.

Part-timers get some dental and prescription drug benefits, and for many, that is the only health insurance they have. When Ramirez had to have intestinal surgery two years ago, he borrowed $20,000 from friends to cover the bill. Otherwise, “I would not have been able to pay it the rest of my life,” he said.

He works another job cleaning houses, as does his wife, although getting enough hours has gotten harder since the downturn. Together, he and his wife bring home $380 a week, he said. They pay $700 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria that they share with their two teenage children.

Peter Chatilovicz, a spokesman for the cleaning companies, said the cleaning firms are willing to absorb rising health-care costs. Workers don’t have to pay premiums. But the firms are not willing to give up control over staffing levels. As for making part-timers full time, he says that is not up to them, but the building owners.

“We’ve gone through a very difficult time and the union wages and benefits have gone up 25 percent at a time when we’ve stayed static,” Chatilovicz said. “We are trying to get a bit of a hiatus to get us back on our feet.”

 
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