15

Houston janitors fight for fair pay in economic boom


  • Photo 1 of 7

    It takes Lorenza Delgado two and a half hours round trip by bus to get to her job as a janitor in Houston. She makes around 860 dollars a month, which she says isn’t enough money to provide a home for her daughter and cover her diabetes medications. All photos by Krissy Clark/Marketplace


  • Photo 2 of 7

    Administrative assistant Erica Vasquez works in the same building as janitor Lorenza Delgado. Vasquez' mother is a janitor, so when she looks at Delgado, she sees more than just a woman who empties the trash cans or cleans the bathrooms. Vasquez says she would want her mother to be treated with kindness, so that's how she treats the janitors in her building.


  • Photo 3 of 7

    Adriana Vasquez cleans floors two through 12 at the JPMorgan Chase Tower in Houston. Vasquez makes $8.35 an hour, which isn’t enough to provide food and shelter for her and her three sons. Vasquez recently brought her concerns before Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. She asked him after a Congressional hearing why, when his company makes billions a year, can’t he afford to pay the people who clean his building a living wage?


  • Photo 4 of 7

    Kate Alsina, a lawyer, says the divide between the professionals in her high-rise office and the people who clean it is not a good thing. She says people shouldn’t be invisible to each other.


  • Photo 5 of 7

    Hernan Trujillo has been a janitor for eight years. He wants to go to college, to make his life better. But in order to take the time to go to college, he would need to work less. And if he worked less, he wouldn't have enough money to go to college. Trujillo wonders why, in a city with so much money, they can't afford to pay him a living wage.


  • Photo 6 of 7

    Drew Woellner is an attorney in Houston. A janitor approached his colleague and asked for help with some legal troubles with a credit card company. Woellner took the case pro bono, and was able to get the janitor out of that financial trouble. Woellner says he doesn't know whether the janitors in his office deserve more money. But he says that if they do a good job, they should make as much as the market will allow.


  • Photo 7 of 7

    The janitors in Houston are asking for a pay raise -- from $8.35 to $10 an hour over the next three years. The contracting companies that employ the janitors are offering a $.50 raise over the next five years. Many of the janitors work in buildings named for some of the richest companies in the world. They don't want much, they say, just enough to live on.

If you look at the nation’s stuttering economy one of the few bright spots can be found in the service industry—more than 70% of jobs lost in that sector during the recession have returned. The catch? Many are low-wage. In fact today at least 20% of all Americans work in low-wage service jobs: cashiers, restaurant bussers, in-home care workers and of course, janitors.

Janitors in Houston are among the lowest paid in the nation, though they clean the offices of some of the richest companies in the world in a city that’s booming. Hundreds of janitors who belong to the Service Employees International Union have been on strike since their contract expired in May, asking for a pay raise—from $8.35 to $10 an hour over the next 3 years. They also want the city to answer the question: just how low can a low-wage be and still be fair?

Marketplace’s Krissy Clark visited some of the high-rises that form Houston’s skyline, to eavesdrop on conversations between people who work at opposite ends of the city’s booming economic horizon.

***

I found that skyscrapers in Houston, like most skyscrapers, are places where janitors and the people whose offices they clean usually pass like ships in the night. Or, more precisely, the elevator. They might exchange pleasantries. Likely in Spanglish.

Hello, how are you? Fine thanks, y you?

That’s about it.

Since janitors and office workers keep different hours and often speak different languages, the gulf between their lives isn’t surprising. But it’s weird, too. Everyday they walk (or vacuum) the same carpet. They breathe (or deodorize) the same air. They even gaze at (or dust) the same framed family photos.

Lorenza Delgado, a janitor at Wells Fargo Plaza in Houston, says when she dusts those pictures – of smiling families on vacation or at a wedding—she feels connected to the people who work at those desks.

“They’re just like me,” she says in Spanish, through a translator. “They love their families and they’re working to provide a better future for them. And that’s why they keep them close.”

Delgado doesn’t have a desk at work to display photos of her own daughter, Leonarda, but thereare pictures of the six year old covering every surface of their living room—a tiny, stuffy place in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston. Leonarda standing next to a model rocket ship.  Leonarda’s diploma for completing preschool. Leonarda at school picture day in kindergarten.

A class photo including Delgado's daughter, Leonarda.

“Muchas Leonardas!” Delgado laughs. She runs through these images every night on her commute to work. Two and a half hours round trip by bus. But, she says, her family, her daughter, her day to day life—that stuff would rarely come up in the quick interactions she has with office-workers while she’s cleaning. Until a few years ago, when she met an administrative assistant on the 53rd floor named Erica Vasquez.

“The first time I met Lorenza, I was working a late night, and she came around to take out the trash. So I just started talking to her,” Vasquez recalls.

Vasquez is fluent in Spanish, which made it easier to talk with Delgado, who speaks limited English. Still, their conversations were brief. With so many offices to clean, Delgado literally runs through the halls to get it all done in her six-hour shift—the longest allowed by most janitorial companies in Houston, though the SEIU says janitors in other big cities get eight hours to do the same amount of work.

Despite the rush of their passing exchanges, little things came out that have given Vasquez a better picture of Delgado’s life. Vasquez was shocked to learn, for example, that Delgado was collecting the recyclables everyone thought the building was sorting.

“She would take the cans and get money for the cans to at least pay a bill or something,” she says. “The amount she makes barely pays enough to pay the rent.”

Not to mention food, or school supplies, or Delgado’s diabetes meds. The $12,000 that Delgado makes a year is well below the poverty line for a family of two. “It’s not fair that they work so hard and get paid so little,” Vasquez says of janitors like Delgado. “I don’t know how she does it. You want to do something to help.”

Vasquez tried to get Delgado a higher paying job cleaning rooms at a hospital, but there wasn’t a good bus route to get her there. As for Vasquez’s bigger question of about fair pay? That’s exactly what striking janitors like Delgado are trying to get office workers in Houston to think about. They’re holding marches in front of buildings that punctuate the city’s booming corporate skyline, owned by companies like Exxon, Shell, and JP Morgan Chase.

“They’re taking all the money home with them,” says Alice MacAfee, who’s been a janitor for thirty years. “And we’re not getting a cut of it.”

Delgado works in a building like the one on the left. And houses like the one on the right are common where she lives.

Drew Woellner is a lawyer who works in one of those opulent downtown skyscrapers, and hears the janitor protests outside his window. He’s gotten to know some of the janitors who work in his office. “They’re very hard working people, they’re always very nice,” he says. “But I don’t know that cleaning the offices of people making more money necessarily correlates into what they should be making.”

But for most of the 20th century, that is how it has worked, according to Arin Dube, an economist at the University of Massachusetts.

“Used to be the case that regardless if the person was a CEO or the person who cleaned the CEO’s office, when the company was doing better, everyone tended to do a little better,” Dube says. “That has changed.”

One reason that’s changed, Dube says, is because today, janitors generally don’t work for the owners of the buildings they clean. Instead, they work for—and collectively bargain with-- subcontractors: often national or multi-national cleaning companies vying to be the lowest bidders for their customers, the building owners.

“You end up becoming hired by a middle man,” explains Dube. “And that makes it easier for a building owner to not have to pay higher wages when they’re doing pretty well.”

 Janitors protest for higher wages in Houston.

Which brings us to another recent conversation between a janitor and—not exactly a person who works in the building she cleans, but close—the CEO of the company the building is named after.

JP Morgan Chase is the third biggest commercial property owner in Houston. And last month, the man who runs it happened to be testifying before Congress. In a union publicity stunt, a janitor named Adriana Vasquez walked up toJP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon after his testimony. She cleans JP Morgan Chase Tower in Houston and, she says, she had a question for him that she’d been rehearsing all morning.

“Mr. Dimon” she asked. “You make the billions of dollars every year. Why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?”

The exchange is captured here in this C-Span video. (Vasquez is the one wearing red in the video.)

Dimon told Vasquez to call his office. She’s still waiting to hear back. When I called Chase and the other major building owners in Houston to ask about janitors wages, I got answers like this:

Technically, those company spokesmen are correct, says Arin Dube, the University of Massachusetts economist. It’s not like Chase, Exxon, or any of the other companies that dominate the Houston skyline are directly dictating the terms of janitors pay. But, Dube says, they hire the contractors who do. And there’s another simple way the Chases and Exxons of the world are connected to the janitors.

“Every employee including their CEO presumably needs to use the bathroom. And when they go in to the bathroom, it has to be clean,” says Dube. “This is a very basic necessity that is filled: They can’t work in an office overrun with trash.”

And thanks to janitors like Hernan Trujillo, they don’t have to. He started cleaning offices soon after graduating from high school, to help pay for his mom’s medical bills when she got sick. He says he can’t help but notice the photos on the desks he cleans.

“When I work in the floors, I always look in the pictures and I’m always imagining ‘Wow, there are so many happy faces!’” he says. The vacation pictures, the baby pictures, he loves looking at them. But there’s one kind of photo that gets to him. "When the kid is graduating from college," he says. Then he apologizes, because he is crying. “That was one of my parents’ dreams," he says.

Trujillo composes himself and explains that's why janitors are striking in Houston. If they got paid even a little more, he says, enough to make ends meet and maybe save a bit at the end of the month, it could help families send their kids to college, just like the children in those pictures on the desks he cleans.

Kai Ryssdal: From our Wealth and Poverty Desk, a story about a strike that's been going on down in Houston, Texas, for the past couple of weeks. Janitors, hundreds of 'em -- office cleaning crews mostly -- are asking for a raise. From $8.35 cents to $10 an hour over the next three years. Janitors in Houston are some of the lowest paid in the country, but the offices they clean belong to some of the richest companies in the world.

Marketplace's Krissy Clark went down to Houston to talk to some of the people who work in the same offices, but have different lives.


Krissy Clark: Skyscrapers in Houston --  like most skyscrapers -- are places where janitors, and the people whose offices they clean, are kind of like ships passing in the night.

Montage of voices: Just hello in the elevator that kind of thing.  Hello, how you doing? Fine thanks, bye.

They keep different hours, often speak different languages. So the distance between janitors and office workers makes sense.  But it's weird, too. Everyday they walk, or vacuum, the same carpet.  They breathe, or deodorize, the same air.  They even look at, or dust,  the same pictures.  

Office worker: This is my grandbaby, her mom and dad.

Lorenza Delgado: Son los mismo que yo.

That last voice is Lorenza Delgado, a janitor at Wells Fargo Plaza in downtown Houston. She says when she sees those photos of smiling families on the desks she cleans, she smiles, thinks to herself -- the people who work at those desks, they're just like me.

Delgado: They love their families and they're working to provide a better future for them. That's why they keep them close.

Delgado's sitting in her hot, tiny living room in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston-- and every surface is covered  with pictures of her daughter, 6-year-old Leonarda. Two above the couch.

Delgado: Leonarda. Leonarda.

A bunch more perched on a little table.

Delgado: Leonarda, Leonarda.

Leonarda at her pre-school graduation. Leonarda standing next to a model rocket ship.

Delgado: Mucho Leonardas!  

Delgado runs through those images every night on her commute to work, two-and-a-half hours round trip by bus. But her family, her childcare issues -- that stuff didn't come up in the quick interactions she'd have with office workers while she was cleaning. Until a few years ago, when she met a woman on the 53rd floor.

Delgado: Erica!  

Erica Vasquez:  I am an administrative assistant. The first time I met Lorenza, I was working a late night and she came around to, you know, take out the trash. So I just started talking to her.  

Vasquez speaks Spanish, but their conversations had to be brief -- with so many offices to clean, Delgado literally runs through the halls to get it all done. Still, in passing exchanges, little things come out that gave Vasquez a better picture of Delgado's life. Take the recyclables everyone thought the building was sorting? Turns out, Delgado was collecting them.

Vasquez: She would take the cans and get money for the cans to at least pay a bill or something. The amount she makes barely pays enough to pay the rent.  

Not to mention food, or school supplies, or Delgado's diabetes meds. The $12,000 that Delgado makes a year is well below the poverty line for a family of two.   

Vasquez: It's not fair -- they work so hard and get paid so little. I don't know how she does it.   

Vasquez tried to get Delgado a higher paying job cleaning rooms at a hospital, but there wasn't a good bus route there. As for Vasquez's bigger question of what's fairwhen it comes to pay?     

Strike: No justice! No peace! No justice! No peace! 

That's exactly what striking janitors like Delgado are trying to get office workers in Houston to think about. They've been holding daily marches in fr ont of towers owned by companies like Exxon, Shell, and JPMorgan Chase.  They say if Houston's corporate skyline is booming, why are they paid so little?

Drew Woellner: There was a demonstration outside my window. It was quite loud.

Drew Woellner is a lawyer who works in a downtown skyscraper. He's gotten to know some of the janitors who work in his office.

Woellner: They're very hard working people, they're always very nice. But I don't know that cleaning the offices of people who make more money necessarily correlates into what they should be making.  

But for most of the 20th century, that's how it works, according to University of Massachusetts economist Arin Dube.

Arin Dube: Used to be the case that regardless if the person was a CEO, or the person who cleaned the CEO's office, when the company was doing better, everyone tended to do a little bit better. That has changed.  

One of the main reasons that's changed, Dube says, is this: Today, if you're a janitor, you probably don't work for the owners of the building you clean. Instead, you work for -- and collectively bargain with -- subcontractors.  National, and multi-national cleaning companies all vying to be the lowest bidders for their customers, the buildings.

Dube: You end upbecoming hired by a middle man. And that makes it easier for, let's say, a building owner to not have to pay higher wages when their profits are doing pretty well.  

Which brings us to a another conversation a janitor recently had with -- not exactly a  person who works in the building she cleans, but the CEO of the company the building is named after.

C-SPAN:  Ah, Mr. Dimon, thank you for appearing today.

JPMorgan Chase is the third biggest owner of buildings where Houston janitors work. And last month, the man who runs JPMorgan Chase happened to be testifying before Congress.

C-SPAN: I think you made about $19 billion in 2011 there, is that right.

Jamie Dimon: Yes.

In a union publicity stunt, after Jamie Dimon's testimony, a janitor named Adriana Vasquez walked up to him. She cleans JPMorgan Chase Tower in Houston, and she says, she had a question.

Adriana Vasquez: Mr. Dimon, you make the billions of dollars every year. Why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?

Dimon told her to call his office. She's still waiting to hear back. When I called Chase, and the other major building owners in Houston, to ask about janitors' wages, I got answers like this:

JPMorgan Chase representative: Don't have a comment for this one.

Exxon Mobil representative: We're really not interested in being in your story at all. We don't like getting involved in things that we don't have anything to do with.

Dube: At a certain level does Jamie Dimon know what that person is making? Of course not.

Here's Arin Dube again, the economist. He says Chase, Exxon, the other companies that dominate the Houston skyline? It's not like they're directly dictating the terms of janitors pay. But they hire the contractors who do. And, there's another simpler way the Chases and Exxons of the world are connected to the janitors.  

Dube: Every employee, including their CEO, presumably needs to use the bathroom. And when they go in to the bathroom, it has to be clean. This is a very basic necessity that is filled. You know, they can't work in an office overrun with trash.  

Hernan Trujillo: When I work in the floors, I always look in the pictures and I'm always imagining wow, there are so many happy faces.

A janitor named Hernan Trujillo started cleaning offices soon after graduating from high school to help pay for his mom's medical bills when she got sick. And when he looks at the photos on the desks he cleans, there's one that always gets to him.

Trujillo: The one is always making me sad is, um, sorry. The kid is graduated from college. And, sorry. That was one of my parent's dreams.  

That's why janitors in Houston are striking, Trujillo says. If they got paid even a little more enough to make ends meet and save a bit at the end of the month? It's the sort of thing that could help families like his send their kids to college, like in those pictures on the desks he cleans.

I'm Krissy Clark for Marketplace.  

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.
Log in to post15 Comments

Pages

Even more than the response from Dimon and co, perhaps because I know the corporate line they will always consistently put forth, I am saddened at the many comments to the article. Belittling people or the author, putting forward harsh Darwinian logic as those that is the kind of society in which we wish to live, challenging that the janitors were probably undocumented workers. What has happened to us? When did a lack of compassion and downright meanness mean one is a good business person? Why do so many of us feel it reasonable to suppress wages (which oppressses workers) until we are living in a 3rd world economy? Please consider our ever widening income disparity and contemplate what happens when our economy is so skewed that the consumer economy collapses for a lack of credit-worth consumers. This is not the way we wish to live in the US. We are better than that. We should be better than that. Charles Dickens is spinning in his grave.

It’s unfortunate that Ms Clark didn’t take the time to obtain all the facts in this story and presented a case which sounds more like a press release from the SEIU. Houston janitors are part time employees. This is a second job. Show me another part time job which offers paid time off and company sponsored health care which Houston janitors currently receive.
To the point of the large companies – Wells Fargo doesn’t own Wells Fargo Plaza; they are a tenant in the building. They pay rent to be there. These buildings are owned by financial institutions who answer to shareholders. For those reading this that live across the country, if you have a 401K then you most likely have some of your mutual funds with Cigna or Met Life etc and part of their investment is real estate. Higher operating expenses to run an office building costs the owner…in other words costs YOU – not Wells Fargo, Exxon, JP Morgan, etc.
Ms Clark should have researched facts instead of hunting up a sound bite of a janitor breaking down into tears.

I commend Ms. Clark for a great job describing this industry. I'm a non-union contract janitor in Baltimore and make 10.60/hr, union scale here is, I believe, a little over 11/hr. I remember back around 2000 there was discussion of a "living wage" for workers at the bottom end of the economy which was, at the time, calculated at $10/hr. With inflation over the past 12 years, 10/hr is no longer a living wage (as I can well attest). But 8.35/hr and limited to 30 hours a week? C'mon Houston! Come join the rest of us in the 21st century. A raise from 8.35 to 10 over 3 years sounds like too little, too late. Ms. Delgado cleans at Wells Fargo Plaza....didn't we hear on Marketplace a couple of weeks ago that Wells Fargo's Quarterly earnings were $5 billion? I think a revised cleaning contract that pays Ms. Delgado and her coworkers 10/hr isn't going to "break the bank".
Oh, and @ RobertG: the reason immigration status of the workers wasn't mentioned is because that's not the issue. Brown skin and a hispanic surname does not make you an illegal immigrant, neither does being a low wage worker. FYI: my ancestors came here from Europe on wooden boats prior to 1776 except for a couple of stragglers who came overland from Canada (legally) in the 19th century.

You have a right to strike, but your employer also has a right to fire you for jepordizing his enterprise.

There is no such concept as a "living wage" in economics. If you have low skills, you make low money. You don't have a right to earn enough money to support a family at just whatever job you find yourself performing. Many of these jobs only make sense as temporary employment whilst learning something more useful, or as suplimental income to a family that already has a real wage earner. The best thing you can tell someone that isn't happy with their pay is to vote with their feet and take their labor to a higher paying position if they can find it. The reason people take a lot of these jobs is because they are better than the alternative they had south of the border- they have improved their lives even with these meager positions.

There was a comment in the story about people getting paid more when the company did well. This is basically nonesense. As an employee you get your bay irrespective of the value of the company, as a shareholder, or are entitled to a share of the profit WHEN there is a profit, and a loss when there is a loss.

I have been listening to this great show since late 1990s when immigrated from Russia for USA to get my MBA. I am making 6 figures now ($100K+) working in Informational technology field, and like to listen this quality radio show (probably the best of modern day USA) from a comfort of my new Lexus, but I never wrote back, except for today. This story touched me deep, it is a shame that some people just exploit the system (or milk it, to be precise), while others spent 2.5 hours on a bus to make ends meet!

Denis
New Orleans, LA

It is very sad that these hard working people are not able to earn living wages.
However, there is something wrong with the story of Trujillo, who became a janitor to help pay his mother's medical bills instead of going to college. As far as I know, kids from the low income families are eligible for financial aid that covers the cost of their college education. I am afraid the fact that he did not realize his and his parents dreams of college education had less to do with his mother's medical bills and more with some other circumstances. There are many people who study and work. If he truly wants to obtain education and secure a better future for himself and his family, he can still do it. Could it be that he is here illegally and that is why he is unable to obtain financial aid for college?
On a slightly different topic of the janitors not being employees of the huge corporations whose offices they clean: similar employment trends exist for other occupations as well. Large corporations are maximizing their profits by using contractor, who are employed by staffing agencies. There are people working side by side in large oil and engineering companies, having the same education and doing the same work, but the staff employees having much better benefits than contractors.

Another tug-at-your-heartstrings story. Yes, many such folks are living a tough life, but how many have chosen to come to the U.S.?--probably many illegally. There was no mention in this story of the immigration status of the workers.

One of the better stories on NPR this week, thanks. Loved the smug voice mail saying "No comment"! As for the comment above about college costing a ton, getting an AA at a junior college is still affordable and can make a big difference in income.

Please look into a biz-related topic that would definitely benefit America's small businesses by leveling the playing field: MoveToAmend.org.

Here is why:
If aliens came
and poisoned half our rivers
and wiped out 1 wild species in 10
and dismantled entire mountains
and laced agricultural lands with poisons
and put cancerous materials into children’s toys
and torched and hacked down our forests
and radically changed our atmosphere
Would we get the Supreme Court to declare them persons and give them all our money?
Or would we mobilize to stop them?

Worthy story, but gosh, yet another instance of Public Radio programs where the "journalist" manages to get a sound bite of someone breaking down and crying in the piece. Can't we just learn about the issue rather than (increasingly) playing on the emotions of the listener? I'm as compassionate towards folks struggling as anyone, but really...

Pages

With Generous Support From...