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Miami Janitors Accuse Employers of Retaliation After Union Push

Local union organizers and janitors marched through downtown Miami last week.
Local union organizers and janitors marched through downtown Miami last week.
Photo courtesy of Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ
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Employees of two local companies who are part of group of Miami janitors that has been fighting for better conditions and the right to unionize over the past year say their employers have retaliated by attempting to intimidate them.

Employees of SFM Janitorial Services, a cleaning company based in Hialeah Gardens, have been attempting to unionize amid rising complaints of unfair treatment and unsafe working conditions. Last June, employees working at the Miami Tower skyscraper said they were not informed when the company sent in a crew to disinfect the area where janitors were working, exposing them to a chemical spray that made it difficult to breathe.

Workers filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which fined SFM $10,651 for failing to warn employees they were entering an area with potentially hazardous chemicals, failing to provide them with proper eye protection, and failing to provide medical attention to those whose eyes were irritated by the disinfectant.

SFM president Christian Infante tells New Times via email that the company denies the findings outlined in the OSHA citation.

"We did not make any admission to the allegations in the OSHA citation and maintain that they are unfounded. SFM has performed disinfecting using Clorox Total 360 in over 500 facilities since the start of the pandemic without any credible issues," Infante writes.

Elsa Romero, an SFM employee who does janitorial work for the company at Miami Tower, tells New Times she and other workers have experienced intimidation on the part of management since filing the complaint.

"At a meeting they told us, 'Don't bite the hand that feeds you,'" says Romero, who's 57.

Romero says managers also told employees that unionizing would not be to their benefit.

Infante denies those claims, as well.

Romero has been at the forefront of several worker-led demonstrations and efforts to improve conditions at SFM, and she says her employer has tried to minimize employee concerns or label them as unfounded.

Employee parking has been a particular point of contention. For months, janitors pleaded with the company for free on-site parking at the Miami Tower. SFM offered to provide parking at a reduced rate of $50 per month. But a number of the workers, many of whom earn slightly more than the minimum wage of $8.56 an hour, said they couldn't afford it and continued parking at a cheaper lot several blocks away, despite their fear that walking downtown at night could be dangerous.

Those fears were actualized on January 27, when Romero was walking to her car after work one evening. She says a man accosted her with a traffic cone after exposing himself to her, and as she backed away, she fell onto the pavement. She says someone called paramedics, who warned her she may have suffered a concussion.

"I couldn't sleep because I was afraid I wouldn't wake up," she tells New Times.

Romero says when she returned to work and her employers were informed of the incident, they did not offer her any sick time to recover. She also says a supervisor implied that she was lying about the fall, despite the fact that a coworker had captured the incident on video.

The accumulation of worker complaints led to a strike and a series of marches last week, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 32BJ. Workers marched under a banner calling for "Justice for Janitors," a nationwide campaign demanding fair working conditions for cleaning-service workers.

The workers, who have yet to officially unionize, are waiting for SFM to voluntarily recognize their right to organize. In the meantime, the SEIU has been assisting them in organizing demonstrations and filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Last week's strike drew the support of elected officials on social media, including Florida state Sen. Jason Pizzo, as well as Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who attended the strike in solidarity with the janitors.

But some workers say their protest led to retaliation. When employees attempted to return to work on Friday evening after the strike, Romero says she and others were notified that some of their shifts had been filled and they would have to work reduced hours.

Romero says workers like her who normally begin their shift at 4 p.m. received a text from a manager telling them their starting time had been changed to 6 p.m. Romero shared a screenshot of the text with New Times.

"Good evening your schedule to enter work at Miami Tower is from 6 p.m. until 11 p.m.," the text reads in Spanish. "The vacancies have been filled. Thank you."

Romero, who is paid $9 per hour, says losing two hours of work per day will hurt her financially.

"I'm trying to find another job during the day. I need to buy insulin for my diabetes and other medications," she says.

Infante, SFM's president, denies that any shifts changed as a result of the strike.

"COMPLETELY FALSE. They were returned to work without incident or change whatsoever. The employees were returned to THEIR REGULAR SHIFT ON FRIDAY AND THEY WORKED IT. TODAY [Monday] THEY ARE EXPECTED BACK TO WORK AT THEIR REGULAR SHIFT. Anything to the contrary has been fabricated," Infante wrote in his email.

After New Times reached out to Infante on Monday, Romero says she was told she could come into work at 4 p.m. because a shift had been opened.

32BJ also demonstrated alongside employees of Greene Kleen of South Florida, who last year protested against their employer, alleging that the company hadn't supplied janitors with personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jackeline Bonnet, a janitorial worker for Greene Kleen, says she was fired after asking for time off to visit her father in Colombia after he suffered a stroke. She says when she asked for the time off, she was told to sign a paper that said she was voluntarily leaving the company, even though she only wanted to be out for three days.

"I came back from visiting my dad and asked when I could get back to work and they said there was no vacancy, no job for me," Bonnet tells New Times.

Bonnet believes she was retaliated against for speaking out about workers' issues, including the lack of PPE and paid sick leave. She says other employees were granted time off for similar issues, yet she was let go.

"The attitude with me changed because I was fighting for my coworkers and their health," she says.

Greene Kleen did not respond to an email from New Times seeking comment.

32BJ has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against both janitorial companies on behalf of the workers. The complaint against Greene Kleen alleges unfair labor practices for firing Bonnet after she attempted to organize her coworkers, and the filing against SFM alleges that the company has threatened to fire workers for complaining about unsafe conditions.

Ana Tinsly, a spokesperson for 32BJ, tells New Times the union will continue to advocate for the workers until their employers willingly recognize the janitors' right to organize and fight for a better workplace.

"Clearly, workers have a right to organize for better working conditions, and it's completely unfair to retaliate against these very essential workers," Tinsly says.

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