Thirty years ago, cleaning workers in Los Angeles were attacked by police while peacefully protesting their low wages. But the violent response from officers didn't squelch the movement — instead, the events of June 1990 set off the Justice for Janitors campaign, a crusade that has continued to fight for fair working conditions for some of the nation's lowest-paid workers.
Yesterday afternoon, janitors from two Miami-based cleaning contractors gathered in downtown Miami to stage their own protest in commemoration of the 30th anniversary. Three decades after the Los Angeles march, wages remain abysmally low for janitorial workers. Amid the global health crisis that is coronavirus, the workers — considered essential — said they continue to be underpaid, denied sick leave, and disrespected.
About 20 janitors, many of them Latinx immigrants, marched outside the Virgin MiamiCentral train station with chants of "Sí se puede" and "Sin respeto no hay justicia" — in English, "Yes we can" and "Without respect, there is no justice."
The Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, coordinated the protest with local janitors from Greene Klean and SFM Services. Spokesperson Ana Tinsly said the union has been in contact with the workers for some time, although they have not unionized yet.
Jackeline Bonett, a Greene Klean worker, told New Times she makes $8.25 an hour and receives no paid sick leave.
"I self-quarantined when a coworker thought they might test positive, and my employers said they weren't gonna pay me and they were gonna tell me if I still had a job when I came back," she said. "Meanwhile, I still had expenses. I had to pay for my parents' medicine in Colombia."
Bonett also said her company has not provided adequate personal protective equipment during the pandemic. Instead, she said workers are given cheap gloves that often break, and they had to sew their own facemasks.
A group of janitorial workers organized by the @32BJFlorida union is participating in a caravan through Downtown Miami protesting unfair wages and lack of care from their employers during the pandemic@MiamiNewTimes pic.twitter.com/1khgguQl4B— Joshua Ceballos (@JoshCeb) June 16, 2020
Workers with SFM Services, meanwhile, point to an incident last month as a clear example of mistreatment. A crew of about 20 cleaners said that while they were cleaning an office in the Miami Tower skyscraper, fumigators also hired by SFM came in and sprayed the place with chemicals.
Janitor Elsa Romero said she found it hard to breathe and nearly fainted.
"They came in to fumigate and didn't warn us, which was terrible for me," said Romero. "We're people, not animals, and I even respect animals more. When I clean with Clorox, I put my pets outside."
The workers will file an OSHA complaint against SFM, according to a press release from the SEIU. The company has received previous complaints of unfair labor practices from the union in 2018 and 2019, Tinsly said.
In a statement to New Times, SFM denied the allegations that its workers were exposed to fumigation chemicals.
"Regarding the alleged fumigation of an office building, SFM Services does not conduct pest fumigation in any of the office buildings it cleans and maintains," the company said. "The alleged incident referenced must have been when a technician was electrostatically disinfecting an elevator and another janitorial employee pushed her out of the way to enter the elevator. Electrostatic disinfecting is safe for the person applying and all people present during the service."
The company also said it "strictly adhere[s] to the law with respect to all areas of employee relations."
"We pay our employees above minimum wage, and we have always provided the necessary PPE, including gloves and masks to all janitorial staff during the pandemic," SFM stated.
After chanting and voicing their concerns outside the train station yesterday afternoon, the janitors hopped in their cars and drove through downtown honking their horns. The caravan drove to the Miami Tower, where they were joined by Florida state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County.
Rodriguez told New Times the state relies on janitors as essential workers, so they deserve more than the minimum respect.
"The economic recovery here cannot be on the backs of the most vulnerable workers. These workers complain of not having the most basic safety protections," Rodriguez said. "They're making minimum wage and are without paid sick leave, and they're essential workers."
Rodriguez said he has tried to pass legislation to allow municipalities to require paid sick leave, but the state legislature has preempted such measures. Yesterday, the senator sent a letter to the state's Department of Economic Opportunity and Department of Health to compel them to draft minimum standards for reopening businesses to protect low-wage essential workers.
As of now, contractors in Miami-Dade County are not required to give their employees paid sick leave. A proposed ordinance to require companies with county contracts to provide paid time off for sick workers was voted down by county commissioners last month.
This story has been updated to include a response from SFM Services.
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.