Janitors in the Queen City

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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.

“Cincinnatians aren’t poor because they’re not working. They’re poor because their jobs don’t pay a living wage.”
— “The State of Our Downtown” Report

The Queen City of Cincinnati is home to the corporate headquarters of thirteen Fortune 1000 companies. In 2011, these companies earned combined profits of nearly $17 billion, and their CEOs took home more than $103 million in pay. Macy’s, for example, netted over $1.25 billion; Fifth Third Bancorp took in $1.3 billion; and Kroger enjoyed profits of over $600 million. The New York Times recently described the town as “emerging again as a hub of civic and economic vitality.”

A worker takes caulk out of seams while doing maintenance work outside the 18th floor of a building, Wednesday, March 21, 2007, in downtown Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

A worker takes caulk out of seams while doing maintenance work outside the 18th floor of a building, Wednesday, March 21, 2007, in downtown Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

But for too many working people that economic vitality isn’t translating into good jobs with living wages. The city is one of the poorest in the nation, with a poverty rate of 30.6 percent, according to 2010 US Census data. A 2011 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty found that 48 percent of children live below the poverty line — the third-worst child poverty rate in the country. According to SEIU Local 1, even though unemployment is on the decline in the city, poverty and racial segregation are on the rise.

That’s why the current negotiations for a new contract between Cincinnati janitors and cleaning contractors are worth paying attention to. The talks began back in September, but have received little media coverage due to the 2012 election. About 1,000 janitors and their families are directly affected by this contract, and low-wage workers throughout the city who are looking for better pay and benefits are affected indirectly.

The average full-time janitor currently makes just $17,836 annually cleaning the offices of these multibillion-dollar companies. Not only is that below the poverty line of $18,106 for a family of three, it’s also just over half the estimated annual cost of living in the city — $33,347 for a one-parent, one-child family to pay for basic necessities.

As a result of these poverty wages, many full-time janitors qualify for programs such as food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, and housing assistance, so the public ends up picking up the tab for corporations that aren’t willing to pay a living wage. (That’s in addition to corporate subsidies like the $52 million in tax incentives Cincinnati offered Convergys Corp — which earned nearly $335 million in profits last year — for renovating its headquarters.)

“These programs exist for people who are going through hard times,” said Dina Smith, a janitor in the city for five years, who lives with her 17-year-old son in a housing project. “You’re supposed to use them as a safety net and then get off them. But how is anyone supposed to get off these programs when we’re not paid enough to survive without them?”

The Cincinnati janitors’ work is grueling. According to SEIU, they clean more than 37.6 million square feet of office space every night. In addition to vacuuming, emptying trash, and sanitizing bathrooms and workspaces, the janitors maneuver heavy bags and equipment and use highly toxic cleaning chemicals — all at a high rate of speed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that janitorial work is one of America’s more dangerous occupations, in terms of the rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses requiring days away from work, and also the number of cases of musculoskeletal disorders associated with the work.

And yet, here is what most of the cleaning contractors are offering the janitors: a wage freeze for two years and a ten-cent increase in 2015.

“Making matters worse, they propose to remove full-time hours protections from the contract so they can push workers into part-time jobs,” SEIU spokesperson Izabela Miltko told me. “That way they avoid the requirements of the Affordable Care Act and push the cost of workers’ healthcare onto the taxpayer.”

The Procter & Gamble Co. headquarters building in Cincinnati. The company is paying its janitorial staff more than most other janitors in the city. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

However, the cleaning contractors ultimately will do whatever the powerful corporations that employ them want them to do. Case in point, Procter & Gamble did the right thing — stepping up and saying that the janitors who clean their downtown headquarters should be paid a living wage. The company uses Compass as its cleaning contractor, and Compass offered the janitors a $.30 increase in the first year, $.25 in the second year, and $.30 in the third year. The current $9.80 hourly wage would therefore rise to $10.65 in 2015, and the average salary would be $19,863. (Not enough, to be sure, but a step in the right direction.) Compass also guaranteed full-time hours and healthcare.

Later this week, I’ll be talking to janitors and reporting on any developments in their negotiations. In the meantime, 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.

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