School Cleaners caught in a legal loophole that prevents them from earning prevailing wages are taking legal action to remedy the situation, arguing that their unique employment status should not deny them fair wages.
Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents the 5,000 Cleaners, has filed a living-wage complaint with the city, seeking prevailing wages for its members.
‘Trying to Correct Inequity’
The Cleaners are employed and managed by the Custodian Engineers who work in the city’s schools, putting them in a legal limbo that excludes them from prevailing wages. This has left the workers without raises for five years as contract negotiations remain on hold.
“We’re trying to correct, with this living-wage complaint, what we feel is an inequity between School Cleaners who take care of the facilities where our children learn and commercial office cleaners,” Local 32BJ Secretary-Treasurer Hector Figueroa said in a phone interview.
Many other office cleaners are paid prevailing wages based on private-industry standards, but the curious employment status of School Cleaners, under which they are considered “both a civil servant and an independent contractor” according to state law, excludes them from that right.
“School Cleaners are paid way below the living wage,” Mr. Figueroa said. “They’re essentially an invisible workforce that is incredibly undervalued, considering that they’re the ones who keep our teachers and students from the H1N1 virus, keep them healthy and safe.”
Earlier Rulings Cloud Chances
Local 32BJ’s complaint is under review by the Comptroller’s Office, but there is worrying precedent—the Comptroller determined that Stationary Engineers and Firepersons also employed by Custodian Engineers in schools are not entitled to prevailing wages.
The union representing those employees, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 94, has filed a lawsuit challenging that ruling, and Local 32BJ has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support.
But the union believes it may have a chance at a positive determination anyway, as it is citing the city’s living-wage law, not state labor laws as Local 94 did.
Mr. Figueroa said that the Cleaners were being mistreated because of a technicality. “[The city is] trying to find loopholes where the government doesn’t have to pay the prevailing wage in the market,” he said. “In our view, these are private-sector workers. They should be treated in the same way as any other employee of a contractor.”
As it stands, Local 32BJ is in the same boat as most other education unions who have had trouble gaining a wage contract since the 2008 financial crisis. The Cleaners’ contract expired in 2007, and since they are without step increases, they have essentially seen their pay slip due to inflation while they hope for retroactive raises in the next deal.
‘Just Staying Above Poverty’
“They are falling behind. If you look at the economics of our members, they’re just surviving from falling into poverty,” Mr. Figueroa said. “The only conclusion that we can derive is that the city doesn’t want to bargain not only because of tough economic times, but because the Mayor is interested in getting certain concessions from the Teachers. We are an unfortunate casualty of that fight.”
One Cleaner, Delores Perry of P.S. 15 in Brooklyn, said that her job was getting tougher because of budget cuts to schools. The 27-year veteran employee cleans both P.S. 15 and a charter school in the same building, and is also on call to show up in the middle of the night if an alarm is tripped in the building.
“We’re being budget-cut left and right by the city, and these cuts are happening in poor communities, and we’re not being looked at as part of the system here,” she said in a phone interview. “We have to endure the diseases and chemicals that we work with every day. We take that home to our families, we don’t get good sleeping hours.”
Although the staffing levels at her school are currently stable, Ms. Perry said the amount of supplies was being reduced. “We’re running out of toilet paper, paper towels. Public-school kids don’t appreciate some of the work you do,” she said. “The gloves we usually have, we don’t have. We have to go to the kitchen to get things we’re running out of.”
A Family Concern
Ms. Perry said she hoped her first raise in five years was around the corner, as she is helping to support her daughter, who lives in a shelter, and grandchildren.
“I know all my brothers and sisters would love to see prevailing wages and living wages go up,” she said. “It’s not fair that one part of our system is making more than us. I know that we do a lot more than some of our counterparts in the cleaning industry.”