Immigrant janitors: “The system is broken”


The janitorial cleaning industry for the past century has been an industry where immigrants have been able to find work as a first step in this country.  In recent years, working conditions in the industry have worsened because of increased immigration enforcement and increased competiton within the industry. 

For more on immigrant janitors, see Non-union janitors: Pay cuts, speed-ups and firing.

According to union organizers, higher paid, unionized janitors are losing their jobs due to the Obama Administration’s policy of I-9 audits, and non-union workers are seeing decreased wages and working conditions due to increased competition among cleaning companies. 

Union Janitors

Javier Morillo-Alicea, from SEIU Local 26, said that there is a stark difference in both wages and working conditions between union and non-union janitors.  While members of Local 26 work mainly in office buildings, non-union workers currently being organized by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) work for small companies who have contracts with retail companies.  While the majority of union members are full time and have health care benefits, janitors working in retail stores usually are part-time, make close to minimum wage, and have terrible working conditions, said Morillo-Alicea. 

The janitorial industry, Morillo-Alicea said, is “The Ellis Island Industry.”  For the past century, it has been a profession filled with immigrants.  SEIU was founded by four Polish immigrants in Chicago, when the main labor federations wouldn’t take them.  In the last thirty years, the industry has been dominated by Latino immigrants, and largely by people without work authorization.  In recent years, there has been a growing number of East African workers in the industry as well, Morillo-Alicea said. 

Morillo-Alicea said that SEIU Local 26 supports the efforts of CTUL.  For their part, Local 26’s main concern is immigration reform.  “The local has in the last two years lost a total of almost 1,500 members as a result of immigrations customs enforced by I-9 audits,” he said. 

“All reasonable people understand our system is broken,” Morillo-Alicea said. “The U.S. gives a tiny number of unskilled worker visas, but the number of visas doesn’t match labor needs.” 

The I-9 Audits

When a person is hired, the employer is required to verify their eligibility to work by inspecting a list of “I-9 documents,” such as birth certificates, social security cards, or immigration documents. Both citizens and legal permanent residents can work, and work permission may also be given to immigrants with some non-permanent resident statuses, such as refugees. 

While the Bush administration primarily approached immigration enforcement through raids, the Obama administration has taken a different approach, through widespread I-9 audits. In 2009, an audit of ABM resulted in termination of employment for more than 1,200 Minnesota janitors. In March 2011, an audit of Harvard Maintenance resulted in termination of about 240 Minnesota janitors. According to MPR, that’s more than half of Harvard’s Minnesota workforce. (Another prominent I-9 audit targeted Chipotle, resulting in the dismissal of hundreds of Minnesota workers at the end of 2010.)

When the Obama administration said it was going to focus on I-9 audits in order to go after employers rather than hurting workers, said Morillo-Alicea, they didn’t take into account employers who use the broken system to skirt labor laws.

According to Morillo-Alicea, when, for instance, a janitor who is working full time and has health care is laid off because of the audit, he doesn’t leave the country. Instead, he may find a job with an employer who is paying cash.  “What has actually happened is that the U.S. has become an employment agency for the worst employers,” he said.

The most egregious employers are paying people under the table, and are paying people less than minimum wage, breaking state and federal laws, according to Morillo-Alicea:  “That is the definition of an egregious employer… The I-9 audits cannot reach the goal of reaching the most egregious employers… Human traffickers don’t ask people for their social security cards.  The tool has been a failure.”

Another problem with the I-9 audits, he said, is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are lazy.  “They seem to be targeting industries not because employers are known to be egregious but because they know or they hear the industry employs lot of Latinos.  If they want to go after employers who are paying cash, that takes investigative work.”

When asked whether the I-9 audits were not catching the most egregious employers that don’t necessarily keep paper work, ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer said, “Employers need to understand that the integrity of their employment records is just as important to the federal government as the integrity of their tax files or banking records.”  According to Neudauer, I-9 audits are based on intelligence and leads, and  inspections touch on employers of all sizes.  “No one industry is being targeted nor is any one industry immune from scrutiny,” he said.  However, some businesses face greater scrutiny “due to their proximity to or involvement in critical infrastructure, such as an airport, port or power generating station”, he said.

Non-Union, but Not Under the Table

In between the higher-paid, unionized janitors and those who work off-the-books for the “most egregious employers,” in Morillo-Alicea’s terms, is another sector of janitors working harder and harder for less and less pay at non-unionized cleaning companies. These are the workers that CTUL is working to organize- janitorial workers from supermarkets such as Lunds & Byerly’s, Cub Foods, and Target.  

In recent months, these non-union workers have been organizing with the help of CTUL, but their goal at this point is not to form a union.  Brian Payne, an organizer from CTUL, said the reason CTUL is not seeking a union for the workers they support currently is that the first step is to establish a code of conduct that will guarantee protections.  In order to form a union, the code of conduct needs to be established first, he said.  

Morillo-Alicea said that SEIU supports the actions of CTUL, but they recognize that right now the main objective of CTUL is to raise the standards of workers.  [See Non-union janitors: Pay cuts, speed ups and firing.]