Rosario Gomez, a janitor from Nicaragua, was working in a Coral Gables building when she caught COVID-19. She passed it on to her entire family.
Part of the problem, said Gomez: inadequate supplies, including personal protective equipment from her employer, a company contracted to clean the building.
At the University of Miami, subcontracted janitors told WLRN radio last week that they’re facing a similar issue. While they had masks, face shields and gloves, they were asking for additional protection when cleaning areas where contamination is suspected.
The UM janitors, who are unionized, since have received additional protective equipment. But elsewhere across the region, many janitors say they have spent much of the pandemic with little PPE.
With roughly 30% of the tri-county’s 40,000 janitors working as contractors, according to Census figures — and with many of them in large office buildings and corporate parks, that means thousands of workers could be affected. A survey released this month by the local unit of the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, found that 70% of the 65 janitors surveyed had not been given gloves or masks at some point during the pandemic.
“Janitors are scared,” said Ana Tinsly, senior communications associate for 32BJ SEIU, which represents roughly 400 UM janitors and groundskeepers, and is seeking to represent others. “The situation in Miami is very difficult because the vast majority of workers cleaning these offices are immigrants and have a first language other than English, so they don’t always necessarily understand what their rights are and in many cases they feel lucky to have a job.”
Hector Rivera, a janitor contracted by SFM Services, Inc. a large local services company, said SFM has given workers only a handful of masks.
“They made us sign a paper when they gave us the first mask, as if they were giving us some treasure,” Rivera said. Since the pandemic began in March, he has received only about five masks, he said.
Rivera has made $9 an hour cleaning for the company for the past year and a half — slightly above the region’s median janitorial wage of $8.50, the lowest of any metro area when adjusted for cost of living, according to a 2019 report released by the union and the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Neighborhood Knowledge.
“If we made a lot of money here then maybe I could understand the need for us to go out and buy our own masks,” he said.
SFM said in an email that it had given janitorial staff face masks, face buffs and latex gloves but did not specify how many or how often.
Gomez worked for Coastal Building Maintenance, or CBM, cleaning the office building 2 Alhambra Plaza. Initially, she said, the company gave workers a new mask each payday — every 20 days. Cleaning supplies, too, were in short supply, and she said she often brought her own.
Esperanza Jimenez also works for CBM, in the same building. At the beginning of the pandemic, she received no masks, she said; after about a month she received a mask every two weeks with her paycheck. Still, she said she doesn’t feel safe; the gloves she’s given to clean bathrooms and office spaces tear easily, she said.
“We’re being exposed and at the same time we’re doing the work of disinfecting the building,” Jimenez said.
Just last month, the company gave a box of masks to each employee, she said.
CBM said in a statement that the company has “worked tirelessly, and spent significantly, to acquire as much equipment and PPE as possible, but that’s challenging in a competitive environment when every company is seeking the same material in bulk.”
The company also disputed Gomez’s account. “All supplies are provided and there are no restrictions placed on what’s ordered by our field managers. Employees are prohibited from bringing outside chemicals/products so we can have standardization of training, ensure proper use of chemicals and for end user/occupant safety.”
Workers for CBM reported to the union that as many as a dozen janitors got sick with COVID-19 but said the company did not inform them. Instead, they found out from each other, said Gomez, who said she was reprimanded for sharing the information.
“[The supervisor] said that I shouldn’t say anything because the [company] owners could lose their cleaning contract and I would lose my job,” she told the Herald.
CBM confirmed that there had been an outbreak at one of its accounts, but the company said it attempted to notify people as soon as possible.
“If there were incidents when information reached employees before we had an opportunity to disseminate formal announcements, we apologize,” the company statement said. “But the insinuation that we purposefully kept information from those who needed it, or retaliated against a single person, is completely false, slanderous and inconsistent with the reputation we’ve worked decades to build.”
Still, Gomez estimated as many as 15 janitors in the building had already caught COVID-19. Then she caught the virus herself and infected her two daughters and three grandchildren.
During the two months she was out sick, Gomez received three checks, one for $119, one for $228 and another for $228. She said she wasn’t clear what the checks were for; she doesn’t get paid sick days.
“If you don’t work, you just don’t get paid,” she said.
After three positive tests, her fourth test came back negative and she was told she had to go back to work. She said she was given a floor that another woman had been cleaning before she caught the virus herself.
Two days after returning to work, she left again.
“I haven’t been feeling well. I’m still feeling dizzy and getting headaches and there’s no ventilation in that floor. I don’t want to die there all by myself,” Gomez said.
One worker at a local cleaning company took matters into her own hands. Lorena Cortez earned $8.56 an hour cleaning offices inside Miami Central for the cleaning company Greene Kleene. In April, she began to sew masks for herself and her coworkers because she said the company wasn’t providing any. She also said the company had inadequate cleaning supplies.
Company owner Cira Figueroa disputes her account, saying the company provided workers with several types of masks, including ones with the company’s logo, at the end of March and that workers signed a paper acknowledging receipt of these masks. She also said that proper cleaning solutions are readily available.
Workers began to organize in the spring and received union support to draft a petition asking for more protection and better working conditions from Greene Kleen. That’s when Cortez said things got worse.
“All the workers who organized were given more tasks to do,” Cortez said. “They demanded things they never asked for before.”
In July, the situation came to a head. Cortez said she was fired after she refused to sign a warning her supervisor gave her.
The union filed a complaint against Greene Kleen on behalf of Cortez, citing unfair labor practices. The complaint states Cortez was fired in retaliation for her efforts to organize workers.
Figueroa said Cortez’s termination had nothing to do with the union and was instead based on multiple warnings related to safety.
When Cortez first lost her job, she said she felt anguished. She’s supporting her daughter in Nicaragua and the money she makes now working one minimum wage job is hardly enough to cover her costs back home.
“But then as the days went by I started thinking,” she said. “I need my job and the money, but what I also need is to be treated better.”
This story was updated to reflect a change in PPE available to University of Miami janitors.