The Fiscal Cliff and the Janitors Who are Already on It

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

“I really want people to understand that we all work just as hard as the next person that’s in a business suit”
—Tamika Maxwell, mother of three, describing her work as a janitor in Cincinnati, her hometown.

Tamika Maxwell. Photo credit: Izabela Miltko

Along with 1,000 colleagues in the city, Maxwell hopes that current negotiations between SEIU and the city’s cleaning contractors will raise their $9.80 hourly wage — which, for annual full-time work, still leaves a family of three below the federal poverty line and relying on food stamps and Medicaid. In essence, the state ends up subsidizing corporations to continue paying people a non-living wage.

“My paycheck is the same amount as my Duke Energy bill,” says Maxwell. “And you know they don’t care — they will cut you off if you don’t have their money.”

Maxwell works part-time while also pursuing a business degree at Cincinnati State. She’s now employed by Scioto Services, which recently won the contract for the Public Defender’s office building that she has cleaned for four years. The company retained Maxwell but cut back all of the janitors’ hours. Instead of working the 5:00-10:00 pm shift five days per week, Maxwell now works only four.

“That’s a big deal when you’re only making $9.80 an hour,” she says.

But perhaps what is most frustrating to Maxwell and her colleagues is that among the cleaning contractors’ clients are some of the richest companies in the world. Macy’s, for example, made $1.25 billion in profits last year; Fifth Third Bancorp took in $1.3 billion; and Kroger netted more than $600 million. In all, thirteen Fortune 1000 companies with their corporate headquarters in Cincinnati earned combined profits of nearly $17 billion in 2011. If any of them told the cleaning contractors to pay a living wage, the contractors would do so, and would pass the additional cost onto the multi-billion dollar corporations.

Indeed, Procter & Gamble instructed its cleaning contractor, Compass, that the janitors who clean its headquarters should earn a living wage. Compass then offered the workers healthcare and guaranteed full-time hours, as well as an hourly wage increase of $0.30 in the first year, $0.25 in the second year, and $0.30 in the third year. That would result in a $10.65 hourly wage in 2015, and an average annual salary of $19,863 (just over the poverty line for a family of three.) In contrast, the other contractors involved in negotiations with SEIU are offering next to nothing: a wage freeze for two years and a ten-cent increase in 2015.

“We just want to be paid fairly, and treated fairly. And the big businesses need to know that we have families that we want to take care of too,” says Maxwell. “I’m struggling right now, trying to figure out what I’m going to do for my kids’ Christmas. I know the big businesses aren’t worrying about their Christmas.”

Maxwell takes her son to school every morning at 7:45, then gets on a bus to go to school herself. After classes, she is home to help her son with homework, and then takes the kids to day care at 4:30 — in time to arrive at work at 5:00 pm for her five-hour shift.

“By the time we get home it’s bedtime,” she says. “So the only time I really get to spend with my children is on the weekends. It sucks, really. But hopefully it will all be worth it when I finish school and won’t have to struggle as hard.”

Maxwell believes that part of the reason for the plight of the janitors is that “people really don’t understand the work that we do.” In her shift, she cleans forty-three bathrooms on thirteen floors. Half of the bathrooms have two stalls, half of them are singles. That’s about sixty-five toilets a night, or thirteen an hour — about four and a half minutes per toilet. That’s hard enough to do in five hours, and of course the job involves a lot more than cleaning toilets.

“I stock the bathrooms — paper towels, tissue, soap, seat covers. I clean them all, mop them all, and dust them all. Clean the mirrors, the countertops, the sinks, the stainless steel,” she says. “It’s really hard work. I go through more gym shoes than anyone can imagine.”

With so much stress over their reduced hours, one way Maxwell and her colleagues try to make up their lost income is by working overtime to fill-in for someone who can’t make it to work. But she says collecting the extra pay can be a challenge.

“I worked two extra hours over four weeks ago and still haven’t gotten paid,” she says.

She has also been waiting for three months for Scioto to fill out a job verification form that she needs so that her family will not be cut off of food stamps.

“Every time I see the manager and ask him about it he says he’ll get it back to me or the office hasn’t sent it back yet — gives me the runaround,” says Maxwell.

A look at the Scioto website and this kind of treatment of employees — in terms of poor wages, reduced hours, and irresponsibility — flies in the face of the image the company is projecting:

It is our human resource investment, however; [sic] that makes us most proud. Scioto Services associates are encouraged to become volunteers with community organizations including the local Chambers of Commerce, Project Parks, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, YMCA, Meals on Wheels, youth sports programs, regional food banks, adult literacy programs and youth tutoring, just to name a few. At Scioto Services, we’re convinced that community involvement is the best way to show our pride in who we are, what we do, and in the communities where we do business.

Another way to invest in human resources and the community is by paying workers enough so that they can eat.

In the meantime, Maxwell hopes that people will rethink their assumptions about janitors and their labor, and get involved in the fight for better pay.

“People think janitors are people who either aren’t trying hard enough, or didn’t try hard enough back when they [were younger], and that’s simply not the case,” says Maxwell. “Somebody has to do these jobs. Workers couldn’t function without our work.”

You can e-mail building owners in Cincinnati — companies like Macy’s and Fifth Third Bancorp — and ask them to support good jobs for janitors here. I’ll be trying to reach them and the cleaning contractors — and continue talking to the janitors — to keep you updated on this story.

Research assistance provided by Christie Thompson.

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  • CIWLOB

    We live in a physical world and we too are physical creatures. Although nature increases and evolves and takes pleasure in this, always has, all of America’s jobs which are physical, and demand physical skills and labour are at the bottom of the pyramid of value. This pyramid of power with the body and earth on the bottom, and the spirit or intellect on top with management slightly below, has been around for a long time. It is behind the reluctance of a country like America (which built its ideas of a valued individual on such a pyramid, perpetually trying to escape nature on the bottom) to face the real consequences of that value structure as it plays itself out today in global ways: social and economic injustice, environmental degredation, and climate change,

  • Tom in Minnesota

    I applaud Ms. Maxwell for going to school so that she can land a better job. I’m wondering why her children’s father isn’t mentioned in the story. Single parent families have it rough and I hope she has a husband or partner to help.