Albina Kalabic doesn’t like blood. It instantly summons memories of the violence she witnessed during the Bosnian War in her town of Maglaj in the ’90s. At age 39, she bears the history on her body: a circular scar from a gunshot wound on her elbow and an arm that refuses to straighten.
Kalabic and her husband, Amir, work at Swedish Medical Center’s Cherry Hill campus. When she comes across blood while cleaning medical buildings there, her husband Amir cleans it instead, once using a ladder to clean blood off the ceiling. Though he witnessed the same violence in Bosnia and also carries the scars, the sight of blood doesn’t shake him.
They moved to the U.S. with their son 10 years ago and have been working as janitors with GCA Services Group ever since. They gather garbage, dust and mop. But they also disinfect procedure rooms, wipe up bodily fluids, lug trash bags filled during surgeries and pick up needles.
It’s not a job you want to rush. The Kalabics’ work potentially exposes them to biohazards that could carry infectious, chronic diseases.
“One time, one mistake, no one can fix it,” Kalabic said.
But janitors who clean commercial buildings in Seattle, especially downtown, are saying they’ve seen reductions in crew sizes and dramatic increases in the amount of work they’re expected to complete in the same amount of time.
Over and over, janitors who have worked for decades told the same story. Where they once cleaned one or two floors, they now clean three or four or five. Where the crews had 20 janitors, they now have 10. That forces them to rush, and compromises safety in a job where they are already at high risk for injury.
“People on my crew work through their breaks,” said Donald Van Zandt, a janitor of 20 years who cleans the U.S. Bank at City Centre. “It’s just insane.”
Van Zandt spoke at a recent action by the Service Employees International Union Local No. 6 (SEIU6), which represents more than 3,000 janitors statewide. The union is in negotiations with janitorial companies and building owners for a new labor contract, as the current one expires June 30. June 15 also marks the annual Justice for Janitors day, which commemorates a longstanding SEIU movement for janitors’ rights that began in Los Angeles in the ’80s.
Union representative Matt Haney said they are demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage for janitors throughout King County, retention of their current family medical benefits and safe workloads.
For Charles Pannell, a janitor of 24 years, that last demand is paramount as negotiations progress.
“People are doing way too much work,” said Pannell, age 71. “People are getting burned out. We got to tell the companies, it’s too much. It’s messed up. We’re doing so much work, it’s pitiful.”
The last union contract was negotiated in 2012, near the end of the economic downturn, when companies were hard-pressed to cut costs and harness efficiency. Today, the Seattle office market is booming, with vacancy rates at 15-year lows, according to research by commercial real estate company JLL.
Advocates say that for janitors, that boom is only translating into more work in buildings with higher density, and that a raise usually comes at a cost. Pannell says he has the same conversation with many janitors.
He asks, “Did you just get a raise?” They say, “Yeah, I got another floor, too.”
Risky work at a high pace
According to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I), janitors have high rates of injury and claim costs compared to other service workers. They face slips and falls, exposure to harmful substances and environments, and are especially at risk for musculoskeletal disorders.
Amir knows that one well. He injured his neck trying to throw a trash bag into a compactor — a task that left another woman out of work for six months with a knee injury, he said. The bags are usually heavy because they contain partially-used bottles of various liquids used in procedures.
More concerning is the potential for being pricked with a used needle, which Albina said happens frequently.
She said she feels tremendous pressure to clean faster.
“It’s too much stress,” she said. “Everybody push you, push you, push you. But you can’t finish the job.”
Amir, who was a police officer in Bosnia, is working to save up the thousands it will take to apply for citizenship for his entire family. On a Friday in May, he was headed out for a weekend of working overtime at two other Seattle buildings.
Janitors are most often immigrants and refugees; nearly a third who file workers’ compensation claims request materials in a language other than English. Within the workforce, fear of retaliation runs high, and national and state studies suggest many work injuries go unreported.
Amir said supervisors have discouraged crew members from filing injury claims, nudging them to wait and go to their personal doctors. Even, in one case, after a needle accident.
“That’s illegal, but they do it,” he said. “That’s zero respect. But every janitor is scared, you know? Everyone is concerned about their job.”
Amir, Pannell and Van Zandt all said it’s not uncommon for their colleagues to work through breaks. They feel they are in a catch-22: They can’t get the job done in their eight-hour shift and could be written up for missed tasks, but they are required to take breaks and can’t take overtime.
“No choice,” Amir said. “So I clock out, but I keep going. I work free for 30 minutes.”
He said he is working double what he was 10 years ago. At a facility like a medical building, however, Amir worries about more than his own well-being.
“Everything needs to be cleaned and disinfected, 100 percent,” he added. “But now, it’s not quality, it’s just quantity.”
The current contract provides janitors with some recourse if they feel their workloads are unmanageable. They can file a grievance and enter a peer-review process where other janitors work their shift for a period of time and report back. If the reviewers find the workload unmanageable, union representatives can meet with the employers to discuss changes.
Zenia Javalera, an organizer with SEIU6, said that process has been pursued only a few times and was ineffective because employers would reduce the workload while under scrutiny, so reviewers didn’t get a realistic picture of janitors’ experiences.
Like other workers, janitors can also file complaints with L&I if they feel they are at risk for injury or are facing retaliation for raising concerns. Denying employees meals or breaks is a misdemeanor, which may be referred to a county prosecutor to pursue.
Bob Battles, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business, said he believes the existing processes are adequate, if only employees would report their grievances. He and Rod Kauffman, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Seattle King County, have been staunchly against proposals by SEIU6 and in the Washington State Legislature to limit workloads by square footage.
They say it’s an arbitrary measurement that doesn’t make sense given variability in workflow. Some janitors might only pick up trash, but span many floors, while other janitors might complete many tasks on one floor.
“I believe that if there is a problem right now, the solutions are already in place,” Battles said. “They need to report it if there is a hazard or a problem, and they can be addressed on a case-by-case basis. But to sit there and say ‘One size fits all,’ that’s not going to happen.”
SEIU6 representatives say there are many barriers to reporting: fear of retaliation, lack of understanding of the complaint system, language barriers and cultural beliefs within a workforce that is largely composed of immigrants and refugees.
“We struggle to have our members feel that privilege to report — they feel intimidated and fear retaliation and don’t want to complain,” Javalera said. “They’d rather put their head down and finish the work than face the heat.”
For those reasons, case-by-case reporting isn’t meeting the needs of janitors. They want a solution that places the burden of safe workloads on the employers and puts more janitors in the buildings.
“This isn’t just about one individual’s run every night,” Haney of SEIU6 said. “We are looking for a systemic solution to a systemic problem.”
But if not square footage, what is the best way to make workplaces safer for janitors? That is what David Bonauto, research director for the Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention program (SHARP), a research arm of L&I that functions separately, wants to find out if he can find the funding.
There is a dearth of data on risk factors for janitors, which makes it hard to form evidence-based decisions. Bonauto wants to analyze which tasks janitors perform and assess them for physical demand and injury risk. He also wants to investigate whether companies are committing labor violations in order to cut costs to compete.
“It’s a high-risk industry, so we need to come up with research that truly identifies what the risks are and apply solutions,” Bonauto said. “I think it’s important to come up with a solution that really does try to limit the physical exposures janitors are facing.”
Doing a long-term, in-depth study would be expensive. Washington State Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, introduced a bill to conduct such a study that would cost $2.1 million. Battles and the Building Owners and Managers Association of Seattle King County opposed the bill, which didn’t pass in the Legislature. Gregerson said she is continuing to work with Bonauto to find resources.
Pannell doesn’t need a study to know that the current workloads are bad for janitors. He carries the data in his body. He walks with a stiff gait, and he’s tired of being tired. Mostly, he’s tired of wearing those vacuum backpacks his company touts as lightweight, but that leave his shoulders and back aching.
But this time, he’s stepping back from the bargaining table. He’s told his wife he wants to retire soon.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’ve been working for a long time, and I’m getting burned out, so someone else should take my place,’” he said. “I want to be able to enjoy a little of life before I don’t have the chance. I’m not getting any younger.”