Often times, the most labor-intensive jobs are also the most unappreciated. Janitorial work is among those services that many people take for granted. I work in a high-rise office building in downtown Seattle, and I have never met the person who sweeps up the crumbs I leave behind while eating at my desk to say “thank you” for keeping the entire office tidy and comfortable.
Recently, I had the opportunity to be part of a community delegation to help three Chinese janitors get their jobs back. Through this experience, I learned about the struggles that janitors go through. In one night’s shift, the average janitor is expected to clean up to 50,000 square feet of office space. That’s equivalent to cleaning nearly 40 townhomes from top to bottom in one night’s 7-8 hour shift.
When building cleaning contracts are shifted between janitorial companies, workers are vulnerable to losing their jobs. This summer, janitorial company GCA Services Group lost its contract to clean the Key Center, a high-rise building in downtown Bellevue. The new contractor, Pacific Building Service, Inc. (PBS), hired most of the janitors working for GCA. Sadly, three Chinese workers were not among those hired because of PBS’s policy that requires all employees to be proficient in English. PBS is the only cleaning company in the region with this discriminatory policy. This policy hurts immigrant communities – janitors are able to clean buildings well without proficiency and most have little interaction with the public, because they work when buildings are empty.
Asian immigrants face many challenges acclimating to a new country, including finding employment opportunities to support and sustain their families. They may have entered the country poor, have limited English speaking skills, have low educational attainment, or have high professional skills that are not recognized in their new country. The janitorial industry is one that where many immigrants can find work, and use as a stepping-stone to achieve their “American Dream.” For example, my grandfather was a rice farmer in the Philippines, but could not continue this work in the US. Similar to janitorial work, dishwashing provided an opportunity for him to earn money and learn new skills. After he worked as a dishwasher, he gained other responsibilities at the restaurant. Eventually, he worked his way to become a home care health worker for elderly people. Sadly, for Yip Chi, Dez Young, and Bo Yu Pan, they were not hired because of their limited English-speaking ability and held back from their American Dream. Collectively, they have worked in the janitorial industry for almost 20 years.
The workers brought their concerns to SEIU Local 6, which represents over 4,000 janitors in the Puget Sound area, and in return, SEIU sought help from the community. A delegation of community members met with Morgan Clark, Property Manager at Kilroy Realty Corporation, to express our concerns about PBS’s discriminatory policy and to ask that the three workers be hired. Mr. Clark, who supports the workers, recognized that the janitorial workforce is extremely diverse with immigrants around the world saying, “This shouldn’t be an issue about a language barrier; it’s a cleaning issue.” As a result of this community delegation, PBS hired Dez Young and Yip Chi to clean the Key Center.
Bo Yu Pan was not hired by PBS because of the small number of hours he was previously working with GCA, in addition to his limited English-speaking skills. Along with Juan Bocanegra, I met with Chris Linder, District Manager at PBS, to request he hire Mr. Pan and retract PBS’s English proficiency policy. Mr. Linder did the right thing and consulted with GCA to hire Mr. Pan for a full-time position, but Mr. Linder continues to defend PBS’s discriminatory policy.
Though all three Chinese workers are now employed, the company’s English proficiency policy continues to hurt immigrant communities. Most recently, they have terminated two Latina long-time janitors because of their limited English speaking skills. The community needs to band together and put pressure on PBS to change its English proficiency policy. This policy prevents a community of hard-working individuals from achieving their American Dream.