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Janitors describe unfavorable work conditions

June 30, 2004
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ALBANY -- June 21, 2004 - (The Legislative Gazette) -- The Capital District Workers' Rights Board heard testimony from janitors last Tuesday on work conditions in the building service industry.

Fred Pfeiffer of the Service Employees International Union 200 United, which represents local building service workers, was among those who testified before the board.

Janitors, Pfeiffer said, are "often the invisible workers asked to do the impossible."

He described conditions non-union workers face each day, including overloaded tasks, working with chemicals without proper training, routine intimidation if workers air grievances and deliberately shortened shifts so company owners can avoid providing health insurance.

"There is also no job security in non-union settings," Pfeiffer said.

Pfeiffer noted the growing trend of state contracts once held by union workers going to companies using non-union employees.

"CSEA workers used to clean the buildings of state government," Pfeiffer said.

Contracts for cleaning the Corning Tower and agency buildings are held by a national organization, American Building Maintenance-Carpet Master, a company with poor labor relations, according to Pfeiffer. He said Greene County convicts clean the floors of Empire State Plaza.

The board, a project of the Capital District Labor-Religion Coalition in affiliation with the national group Jobs for Justice, is a public forum where workers can bring complaints against employers for violating their human and legal rights in the workplace.

Board members include Assemblyman Robert G. Prentiss, R,C-Colonie; Assemblyman John J. McEneny, D,L-Albany; Albany County Legislator Wanda Wilingham; Attorney David Soares; community activist Carmen Rau; and Labor-Religion Coalition Co-chairwoman Rev. Joyce Hartwell.

Kaseem Moultrie spent eight years as a non-union janitor in the Capital Region before getting a union job at the College of St. Rose. He testified about what it is like to raise a family on non-union wages.

"Janitors in the Capital District are being overworked and taken advantage of by greedy employers," Moultrie said. "Too many non-union workers are standing on line for government assistance programs despite working full time. I myself had to seek government assistance while working full time," since wages alone could not support a wife and children.

Moultrie described feelings of conflict and indignity that he could not provide for his family while working full time.

Some of the most poignant testimony came from Jim McDermott, owner of Beacon Cleaning. He said his company is relatively small with 10 employees, yet the business has experienced significant growth in the past few years.

McDermott said the success of his company is due in no small part to paying its employees three to four dollars higher than the industry standard of eight dollars an hour, plus treating employees as integral assets instead of replacement parts. He cited Henry Ford's business philosophy that providing a living wage for employees guarantees a long, healthy business.

"Too many companies treat workers as expendable commodities," McDermott said, noting that industry employee turnover runs 300 percent per year because incompetent managers collude with landlords to make work conditions unfavorable.

"Air conditioning and circulation units are routinely shut off while janitorial staffs go to work," McDermott said. "Employees are seen as chattel, and therefore dispensable. I am fully cognizant that my company is built upon the labor of others."

McDermott said he thinks businesses like his are under pressure from national companies that are moving into the Capital District. Board members asked him what can be done to counter this growing trend.

"Scream holy hell," McDermott said. "Don't let it happen."

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