Ignacio Manuel Qui & #324;ones works five nights a week cleaning offices at Symphony Towers, a job he’s held for about three years.
For this, he’s paid $7.05 an hour, which comes to $846 a month on a 30-hour per week shift, or a little more than $10,000 annually.
Qui & #324;ones, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran, also receives about $90 a month from his military pension, but even with that, he doesn’t have much left over after paying rent and other essentials.
“I’m just working to make ends meet. I don’t go out too often,” he said.
Qui & #324;ones is hoping current negotiations for a new contract between his union, representing about 1,200 janitors in the county, and a group of janitorial service contractors improves his situation.
But even with a proposed 50 cents an hour pay hike, his salary would still be below the national poverty rate, say union officials.
San Diego janitors’ union representatives scheduled a negotiating session with the contractors’ representative April 7, but if an agreement wasn’t reached, they were prepared to go out on strike in an action that would affect 21 Downtown buildings.
Union organizers are asking for a wage hike of 50 cents an hour annually for three years, health insurance and no benefit reductions.
The contractor’s representative is offering a 50-cent increase spread over three years and a reduction in certain benefits. The union contract expired March 31.
Mary Grillo, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 2028, said Qui & #324;ones and other union janitors are asking for a living wage that allows them a chance to survive and for basic health insurance from their employers.
“Right now these workers qualify for all the tax-supported programs our government provides because they’re making such low wages,” Grillo said. “Wouldn’t it be wiser to pay them a higher wage so they wouldn’t have to depend on those programs?”
Spreading The Wealth
It’s a question more workers , not just unionized janitors , are putting to employers and policymakers at a time when many companies in this economy are enjoying record profits and sky-rocketing stock prices.
“In this booming economy that San Diego is experiencing, everyone should be sharing in it,” she said. “People working as hard as these people do should be paid enough so they can afford the basic necessities, and that includes a basic health care plan.”
Not everyone agrees.
Dick Davis, the contracted negotiator for a group of six janitorial companies in San Diego, said while providing a health plan to everyone is a nice idea, someone has to pay for it, and given the market forces in play, it’s not possible.
“Every contractor thinks their workers should have a health plan. The problem is, who do you charge for it?” he said.
Davis, a former union contract negotiator, said a health plan would cost $2 an hour per worker, a price his clients cannot pay if they want to remain profitable.
Should they give in to all the union’s demands, the contractors would soon find themselves underbid by non-union contractors who are paying their workers much less than $7 an hour, he said.
Growing Office Space
Yet the contractors’ argument doesn’t hold up when considering the profits being made by building owners in recent years, said Donald Cohen, president of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a local labor research organization.
Despite the addition of about 5 million square feet of new office space to the county’s inventory over the past three years, the vacancy rate for commercial office space for both Downtown and suburban office space has dwindled to below 10 percent.
Along with this, rental rates have risen steadily, but for the most part, wages paid to janitors have remained stagnant, Cohen said.
According to a report prepared for SEIU by the center that used data supplied by the building industry, cleaning costs paid by building owners make up only a nickel of each rental dollar collected.
The report estimated that giving janitors a modest wage increase would cost building owners an additional penny on that dollar.
“Is that too much to ask for people who are cleaning those buildings, to give them the opportunity to have a life with dignity?” Cohen asked.
The local efforts on behalf of the janitors is part of a larger movement to get local governments to adopt living wage policies, or wages that allow workers to survive without government subsidies, Cohen said.
By not paying workers adequate salaries, they are forced to rely on such programs as food stamps, Medi-Cal and school lunches, Cohen said.
“Most people do not believe we should be using taxpayer dollars to create jobs that force people to live in poverty,” he said.
In San Diego, a coalition of local union workers and officials and religious leaders have lobbied elected and appointed government leaders sspent months lobbying to establish living wage standards.
In February, the coalition celebrated what it considered was a victory when the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, the region’s largest mass transit agency, voted to support the concept.
Although no specific wage scale was adopted, the board directed its staff to work with the coalition to develop a new policy.
The current training rate for new city bus drivers is the state minimum wage of $5.75, which increases 2 cents following a four-week training session. After about two years, full-time drivers earn about $12 hourly and can reach nearly $17 hourly.
Cohen said the coalition’s goal is to get the MTDB to adopt a pay scale for drivers of $8.35 an hour, and a benefits plan for both full-time and part-time employees. The hourly wage translates to the federal poverty level salary needed to support a family of four, he said.
The living wage concept is slowly taking hold as it has been adopted by 28 cities, although the issue has yet to come before the city of San Diego.
It’s a concept that makes good business sense, and would ultimately save tax dollars, Cohen said. By sanctioning below poverty level wages, taxpayers are essentially subsidizing these companies, he said.
“The time has come when we have to say that it’s not all right to run a business in San Diego and not carry your fair share,” Cohen said.