Janitors' pay stays closeted

Labor: For janitors in Baltimore,the economic boom is a faint echo. Labor organizers say they should unionize.

May 23, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The days of Denzella Chapman's life churn like this: take pre-dawn bus downtown; clean Peabody Institute until 2:30 p.m.; ride bus back home for short break; catch downtown subway an hour later; clean Charles Center until 9 p.m.; take subway back home; collapse.

Her reward: about $18,000 a year and bunions, which she had surgically removed this month.

"I think it's from being on my feet so much," said Chapman, 56. "I'd rather have one job and not have to work two jobs."

Despite economic good times, low unemployment and rising wages in other industries, Chapman and her colleagues linger on the bottom tier of the job market. Their story is from the seldom-seen dark side of today's economy.

Janitorial work used to be a viable career for those without the skills for something better. One job. Forty hours. Health care. Vacation. Some security.

Today, cleaning toilets and floors and emptying trash isn't a career. For many, it's a minimum wage, no-benefits trap.

And more people destined to fall into it, which is why janitors - particularly in downtown Baltimore - have become a target for labor organizers who say union representation or city-regulated wages are overdue.

As offices and hotels mushroom around the Inner Harbor, janitors and other service workers - waiters and waitresses, retail clerks, cashiers and such - are the fastest-growing job sector. Demand for such workers is the result of Baltimore's quarter-century move from manufacturing economy (fueled by factories and mills) to service economy (fueled by restaurants and malls).

In 1970, 1 in 10 city jobs were in manufacturing; by 1995, that had dropped to 1 in 30. Over the same period, service jobs such as janitor nearly doubled to 1 in 5.

More than 12,000 Baltimore workers are classified by the state as janitors and cleaners, a broad definition that includes custodians, maids and hotel housekeepers. Statewide, there are more than 40,000 janitors.

But the laws of supply and demand don't apply to janitors, whose wages and benefits have dropped as the corporate world honed the art of outsourcing - replacing full-time employees with part-time contract workers.

While pay and benefits are better at such suburban locales as The Mall at Columbia, most Baltimore janitors work part-time for minimum wage, taking home less in a week than visitors pay for an average night's stay in an Inner Harbor hotel. The trend is creating a large new class of "working poor" - those who work one, two or three jobs but still take home poverty-level wages.

At $5.15 an hour, even those working 40 hours a week earn just $10,712 a year, well below the poverty line of $16,700 for a family of four. The bulk of Baltimore's lowest wage earners are janitors, 84 percent are African-American and many rely on public assistance, according to a 1999 study by the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.

Said Scott Cooper, a labor organizer with the city-based Solidarity Sponsoring Committee: "The reality is, it [the Inner Harbor's growth] has created a lot of bad jobs."

Cooper's group is part of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, which helped win a "living wage" for janitors and others in city-contracted jobs in 1994. In discussions with Mayor Martin O'Malley and with City Council leaders at a church rally this month, Cooper's group has pressured officials to increase wages at other buildings that receive public subsidies. The group hopes to gain the type of union representation that is helping janitors elsewhere earn more money.

Janitors in other cities recently fought for and won pay raises. But in such cities - Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Philadelphia and Washington - janitors are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has funded a "Justice for Janitors" campaign to boost wages. In those cities, the bulk of janitors work full time and earn twice what they do in Baltimore.

Why, Vincent Stokes wonders, is Baltimore, a town that had once been so pro-union and blue collar, so far behind other cities on labor issues?

"You have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet," said Stokes, who recently quit his janitorial job when he received a small raise but a cut in hours. "They get you one way or another."

Unionizing city janitors has proved difficult because the jobs are part-time, turnover is high and the work is decentralized. Janitors work alone or in pairs, usually at night, and rarely meet their employer or other co-workers.

The modern janitorial career path was paved by the corporate creation of the real estate industry.

Before large real estate corporations and REITs (real estate investment trusts) started buying up buildings 30 years ago, many building owners hired in-house janitors and paid them decent wages. Now, corporate owners hire building management firms to run their building, and those firms hire third-party janitorial contractors who hire the janitors.

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