Janitors suffer as cost of living rises

On Thursday, October 24, 2019, local janitor Elsa Romero, who lives with her three dogs in a trailer home, is photographed as she and other janitors fight for a reasonable living wage after being priced out of Miami. Galindo is part of a nascent movement among the tens of thousands of janitors in South Florida to seek better working conditions — conditions that grow more dire as the cost of living here continues to soar.
On Thursday, October 24, 2019, local janitor Elsa Romero, who lives with her three dogs in a trailer home, is photographed as she and other janitors fight for a reasonable living wage after being priced out of Miami. Galindo is part of a nascent movement among the tens of thousands of janitors in South Florida to seek better working conditions — conditions that grow more dire as the cost of living here continues to soar. Carl Juste

Every day, Maria Galindo comes home to five adorable dogs.

Four of them are real: Brownie, Pucho, Linda and Naomi, each rescues of one sort or another. One walks with a limp; another was rescued in the street.

The fifth dog is a smiling mutt in a painting given to her by a Spanish man at a California hotel where she worked shortly after she arrived in America from her native Honduras. He was throwing it out; she thought it looked nice.

The five dogs greet her when she returns to her small Little Havana apartment in the pre-dawn hours from her $9-an-hour job as a cleaner at the Miami Tower downtown.

Although she studied fashion many years ago as a young woman, Galindo has worked as a cleaner for most of her adult life. It wasn't what she'd planned; in any event, she's here now.

But these days, she can barely afford to feed the pups, she said. She often skips paying for her own meals so that the dogs, along with her special needs son, can eat.

Maria Galindo has had enough. Enough of what she calls the dehumanizing treatment at her workplace. Enough of the pay that barely sniffs above minimum wage. Enough of having to enter and exit Miami Tower, the 47-story tower that houses high-end law firms and banking clients, through a side entrance that is often surrounded by vagrants.

So Galindo is speaking out.

Galindo is part of a nascent movement among the tens of thousands of janitors in South Florida to seek better working conditions — conditions that grow more dire as the cost of living here continues to soar.

According to a new report from the University of California-Los Angeles' Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, the median wage for contracted office janitors in South Florida is approximately $8.50 per hour. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median local wage at $10.89, a figure that includes full-time janitors and ones covered by living-wage statutes. Contractors are more likely to employ part-time workers, according to the American Association of Cleaning Professionals.

The $8.50 figure places South Florida janitorial workers in the bottom 10% of for contracted janitorial earnings in Florida, a state where low-wage work is already pervasive.

And the gap between janitors' wages and the rest of the economy is only growing. While inflation-adjusted wages for all private sector workers in South Florida have climbed 7.6% since 1998, janitorial wages have barely budged, increasing just 1.8%. The Miami metro area now ranks 380th out of 382 among all metro areas for janitorial wages when cost of living is taken into account. Among large U.S. metros, it's dead last.

In other words, a janitor's dollar has less value in South Florida than just about anywhere else.

And yet they are a growing part of the workforce. The UCLA report, commissioned by the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents more than 1,200 area janitors, shows there are now nearly as many cleaning workers as there are secretaries in South Florida; at 40,200, the region has the ninth-largest cleaning workforce in the country, and one of the highest concentrations as a share of the total labor force. Since 1998, employment in Miami's janitorial industry has grown by 75%. That's three times the rate of employment growth for the greater Miami area.

"Janitors play a crucial role in the South Florida economy, while being some of the most exploited workers in the real estate industry," the report authors write.

Miami's towers have mushroomed over the past two decades as the city has shifted from a sleepy burgh to a cosmopolitan Oz. More than 50% of Miami-Dade's major office, residential, and retail buildings were constructed in the last twenty years, according to UCLA; these high-rises now represent 62% of the region's total market value.

Yet as the building boom has brought in higher-wage tenants, local rents have soared — leaving janitors behind. Rents have climbed approximately $1,000 in the past two decades, according to the Miami Herald's recent Priced Out of Paradise report. Between 2011 and 2017 alone, rents in Miami-Dade grew by 24 percent, according to U.S. Census figures.

Today, 69% of contracted janitors in South Florida now find themselves rent burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income in rent. While workers in many other industries have been able to move up and out of the neighborhoods they may have lived in before the boom, that has not been the case for Miami-area janitors.

Part of the problem: South Florida property managers are more likely to use subcontractors dependent on part-time labor, according to Wayne Baxtrom, president of the American Association of Cleaning Professionals.

"Maybe at the (local insurance agency) office, you'd get that," he said. "My contracting business here in Chicago, when we go after larger contracts, those are all full-time people (doing the cleaning)."

The situation is thrown into relief when South Florida is compared with other major metros. While the cost of living has climbed in most major metros as higher-paid workers have moved back to urban cores, janitorial wages in many cases have kept pace. In Hartford, CT — a city with some of the highest rents in the country — janitorial pay has grown as well, with cleaners earning $15.18 an hour after adjusting for cost of living. The same holds for Boston ($14.59 per hour) and Seattle ($14.39), according to the UCLA study.

Each of those cities has one thing in common: There is a local union and an industry-wide contract.

"Companies can be model actors, but the industry, locally, has to be forced to be models, and the only way to do that is for janitors to unionize," said Helene O'Brien, Florida president of 32BJ. "It's not the conscience of company, it's the power of janitors when they stick together."

O'Brien and SEIU are now actively working to unionize local janitorial workers, with the goal of winning enough workplaces that it can corner the market and command wages of at least $15 an hour.

That would be above the wages paid at two other local workplaces where janitors are unionized. At the University of Miami, janitors earn an average of $13.61 per hour, according to SEIU. At Miami International Airport, they make at least $12.63 an hour with qualifying health benefits, or $17.06 without.

SEIU says Miami is unique among major commercial office markets in that most janitors aren't unionized. In other markets, a union can create a multi-employer contract that regulates the industry by enforcing a wage floor.

"If they don't organize, the direction of the entire economy goes down — it's a race to the bottom," O'Brien said. "And it ends up being paid for by the taxpayer."

SFM Services, Inc., Galindo's employer, has approximately 400 workers in its janitorial division; most are part-time. In an interview, the company's chief operating officer, Joseph Pinon, said he wished he would pay his workers more if he could.

"Obviously companies, or cities, look for the lowest bidder," he said. "In order to get that opportunity...that's what drives the wages so low."

He said the fact that his company can pay as much as $9 an hour in settings where there is not a living-wage requirement, such as at Miami International Airport, shows SFM is prepared to pay above the state minimum wage, currently set at $8.46.

"I wish we could pay them a lot more," he said. "We simply cannot."

He said the company makes up for the low wages in how it treats its workers.

"We put them as close to their work as possible," he said.

Representatives for Transwestern, the property manager at Miami Tower, did not respond to requests for comment. Another major employer of janitors in the area, Coastal Building Management, did not respond to questions about its workforce. In an email, president Matthew Sullivan said he was not at liberty to disclose the wages his company pays.

"Coastal Building Maintenance has been a good corporate citizen in the South Florida community since 1973, helping create jobs and contribute to the local economy," he said in a statement.

He continued, "We treat our employees fairly and according to common industry standards for both wages and benefits. We believe in the power, autonomy and integrity of our staff. All CBM employees are at will, can explore employment elsewhere and choose to work with us."

Elsa Romero has heard that kind of language, about being free to leave, before.

Romero, 55, works alongside Galindo at Miami Tower for SFM. She has lived in a cramped trailer in a park on Northwest 81st Street just west of I-95 for about 25 years. She says she feels part of the Miami community, having lived in the region since she was a teenager.

She says her supervisors told her that she is free to take any other work she wants, because "they have a list of 20,000 other people willing to do the job."

Like Galindo, Romero is kept company by her pups, three mutts small enough that they can all fit in her lap. But she lives alone, having separated from her spouse and without the ability to live with her two grown children.

Romero has diabetes. She says she often ends up rationing her insulin because her pay, $9 an hour, is too little to afford full doses. She also sometimes skips other medicines her doctor tells her to take. It causes her feet to swell.

If she were making just a bit more money, she says, she wouldn't have to worry so much about her health. Mostly, she just doesn't want to be a burden to her family.

"I feel quite bad," she said. "I say 'God, you're my strength here.' I have to...I need the money. It's quite frustrating. They say, 'If you feel bad, it's not my problem.'"

For now, she says, she must put her faith in God to let her wake up each morning.

This is not Galindo's first fight — she was part of the University of Miami strikers that successfully won a living wage in 2006.

She says she is now speaking up for her colleagues who feel the same way, but are afraid. She has nothing to lose but her job.

"I feel like I'm nothing to them," she said.

Her manager knows she is speaking out; she said she has been asked, "Why don't you clean as good as you talk?"

But if she had the chance to speak freely to someone in charge, she would ask whether they're aware of how little the company she works for is paying them, when they are earning so much.

And she would ask why they are exploiting them in this way.

"What's the fear?" she asked. "We are in this country...we can express ourselves however we wish. We have rights."