In D.C., mobilizing an army

Every weekday evening Maria Rivera arrives at 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW to start her part-time job as a janitor, earning $6.20 an hour. It's her third job of the day.

In the mornings when she can get work, Rivera, 52, takes babysitting jobs at $10 an hour. And every afternoon she works for a D.C. family, watching their young son for $150 a week. "I could find another job," she said through an interpreter, "but the family respects me and I love this kid."

Rivera, who came to the United States six years ago from her native Peru, provides for herself and her diabetic husband through scraps of jobs that pay little more than the minimum wage and provide no benefits.

Rivera is typical of the small army of union janitors that cleans the District's commercial office buildings every night, a mostly female and Hispanic work force. Every night, the average janitor is responsible for cleaning 20,000 square feet of office space, the equivalent of eight houses, according to Mary Anne Hohenstein of Local 82 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose members clean nearly half of D.C.'s commercial offices.

Janitorial contracts covering 1,700 Local 82 members who work downtown expired at midnight last night without a new agreement, but both the union and the companies agreed to continue talking and no strike is likely for at least several days.

While talks continue, the union also is focusing on a campaign to organize the area's largest nonunion cleaning contractor -- P&R Enterprises of Falls Church -- to ease the competitive pressures on the union contractors who now pay higher wages.

A major target is expected to be National Airport -- which is cleaned by P&R -- where union officials said they are planning an escalating series of "dramatic" demonstrations this week.

Local 82, which has blocked bridges into the District during rush hour to highlight its cause, sent a letter yesterday to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority asking it to require cleaning contractors to pay the same wage and benefit minimums required under the federal Service Contract Act. Janitors cleaning government buildings receive $7.50 an hour.

Union officials have said they will disrupt an authority meeting tomorrow if they are not given a hearing.

Airport spokesman Jonathan Gaffney said the union has informed the authority that it has been issued permits to picket at the airport, but said it did not plan to interfere with airport operations. "We don't anticipate they'll do anything to disrupt the operations at National," Gaffney said.

Anita Barondes, a labor lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw Fairweather & Geraldson, who represents P&R Enterprises, said, "I think the effort to disrupt operations is really designed to make building owners say, `We don't want this disruption, do something about it.' It's not designed to help the employees, but to add to the number of companies the union can say it represents." If the company's employees voted for a union, she said, the firm would negotiate with it, "but it's the employees' choice -- it's not going to be based on threats and disruption."

Barondes said that based on what she's seen of the union contract, "The wages are not higher or significantly higher than what's being paid at P&R."

The union is seeking a citywide contract that pays janitors at least the poverty level for a family of four -- $7.48 an hour -- and health care coverage for both full-time and part-time workers. The current contract pays $6.20 an hour for the 1,500 part-time workers and $6.90 an hour for the 200 full-time union janitors. Only full-time workers receive health care benefits.

For workers like Rivera, health care benefits are a major issue. She pays $50 a month toward a $5,000 medical bill she received when she was hospitalized four years ago with an ulcer, and still owes $1,200. She buys medication for her husband at a discount through a D.C. medical center.

Ellen Johnson, 43, who has cleaned D.C. office buildings since she was 16, is still paying off an $800 medical bill for treatment of a broken ankle. She said she's paying $20 a month out of her earnings of $5.50 an hour working part time every weekday night for P&R at the International Square building at 1825 I St. NW. "If I go out sick I have nothing to fall back on," she said.

Any increase in janitors' salaries would be borne by D.C. office building tenants, who already pay the highest rents in the country.

"Just like any cost of goods, ultimately, the end user pays for that cost," said Lonnise Gilley, vice president for real estate management at Carr Real Estate Services, the largest manager of downtown Washington office properties and a major target of SEIU organizing campaigns.

According to the Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA), the District has the highest average office rents in the country at $33.02 per square foot, surpassing even downtown New York, where rents average $29.13 per square foot.

Gilley said tenants pay cleaning costs either directly or as part of their rent. "The concept is the tenants are paying anyhow," she said. Although Carr has been a frequent target of SEIU demonstrations, Gilley said the company considers itself neutral on union issues and about a third of its buildings are cleaned by union contractors.

Average operating expenses for a D.C. office building are $11.02 per foot, according to BOMA. Of that, cleaning expenses account for $1.15 per square foot. That puts cleaning expenses here well below the $2.60 average in New York, but on a par with other large cities. For instance, the average in Boston is $1.23; in Los Angeles, $1.03; in Miami, $1.17; and in Philadelphia, $1.46.

In this area, cleaning costs -- and just about all other costs associated with office buildings -- are lower in the suburbs: 98 cents per square foot in Northern Virginia and 94 cents per square foot in suburban Maryland, BOMA said.

Wages make up much but not all of cleaning costs, and suburban wages here are lower than in the District, where the minimum wage is $1 per hour higher than the federal minimum wage that prevails in the suburbs.

Washington Post
Publication Date: 
October 1, 1996