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Justice for Janitors Day: Oregon Moves to Protect Vulnerable Workers

The "Justice for Janitors" movement began in 1985 in response to low wages and poor benefits. (SEIU Local 49)
The "Justice for Janitors" movement began in 1985 in response to low wages and poor benefits. (SEIU Local 49)
June 15, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. – Today, labor organizations are honoring America's custodians with Justice for Janitors Day, a recognition of their struggle for fair wages and a safe working environment. In Oregon, the Service Employees International Union Local 49 has released a report on how a new state law could clean up the janitorial industry.

Workers in the industry are routinely subjected to harassment and exploitation. But starting July 1, contractors will have to obtain a license from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and train workers in abuse prevention.

Report author Jeremy Simer, a researcher with SEIU Local 49, says building owners and property managers will also be accountable under this law.

"The state law is now holding both janitorial contractors and their customers responsible for cleaning up the industry and making sure that janitors doing this hard work, often for low pay, that their rights are respected, that they're paid fairly and they're not subjected to sexual harassment or discrimination," says Simer.

The report highlights janitorial contractors that have been charged with wage theft and workplace safety abuses. Under the new law, BOLI can fine anyone who uses unlicensed companies up to $2,000. Building owners and property managers can be held liable for contractor abuses as well.

Simer says owners and managers can use SEIU's contractors guide to find companies that are following responsible contracting practices.

Simer says contractors put workers in dangerous positions because they feel like they can get away with it, especially with vulnerable populations who don't speak English as a first language.

That was the case with Elisenda Tavera, a porter with Millennium Building Services in Portland. She was asked to empty the trash in a construction zone where safety gear was required. When Tavera told her supervisor she didn't have the right equipment, he said she needed to figure it out or threatened to come down to her workplace.

Tavera, speaking through a translator, says she reported this to human resources at her company, but they took the supervisor's side.

"'Just be patient with the supervisor. Supervisors are under a lot of stress.' I felt unprotected and I just didn't know where else to turn after hearing that answer from HR," says Tavera.

Tavera says she's also been hurt on the job and denied sick days. She's lodged a complaint with BOLI over this.

Sexual harassment also is an issue. Simer says the "Me Too" movement has focused on movie stars and government officials, which is important, but adds that this conversation isn't confined to high-profile professions.

"Sexual harassment and assault hurts people in every industry, but it's people like janitors and people in low-wage jobs that aren't heard from as much," says Smmer.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR