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How Minnesota Janitors are Forced to
Pay for Wage Increases with
Unsafe Workloads

SEIU Local 26 is Minnesota’s Property Services Union. We are janitors,
security officers and window cleaners, more than 6,000 strong in the
Twin Cities metro area. The Service Employees International Union is an
organization of 2 million members across North America, united by the
belief in the dignity and worth of workers and the services they provide.
We are dedicated to improving the lives of workers and families and
creating a more just and humane society.

1- 855-265 6225

1620 Central Avenue NE, Suite 177 Minneapolis, MN 55413

In the Twin Cities, as in the rest of the United States,
the janitorial industry has undergone massive
subcontracting in the last three decades, dramatically
changing the way our buildings and facilities are
cleaned and maintained.

How has subcontracting affected janitors?
The average office dweller, customer or passerby may
not notice, but when a building’s cleaning workers are
subcontracted, instead of directly hired, the changes
that occur are significant, and they have repercussions
for individuals, families and communities.

Publication Date: January 2016

Contractor cleaning companies are able to offer



janitorial services at a lower prices by paying
contracted janitors less than directly hired janitors.

Before subcontracting, janitors had free healthcare,
pensions and more sick and vacation days.

Extreme Workloads
and Dangerous

Fewer janitors are hired to clean the same
buildings, so janitors are pushed to clean
more than they ever have.

These factors lead to hard times for janitors and their communities.


Injuries and overexertion cause janitors to stay home from
work. For low-wage families, a few days without pay can
be devastating.
Missed paychecks and mounting medical bills force


families to cut back on spending. That can mean
skipping meals and turning off the heat. It can even
mean having to choose between paying the bills and
paying for medication, weakening the health of the
people in a community, and its economy.
Not long ago, janitorial work offered good

Racial disparities
& inequity

jobs and benefits when the workforce was
predominantly white. Today, more than 90% of
SEIU Local 26 janitors are people of color and
they’re doing the same work

In a state recognized for its appalling racial inequalities, addressing these issues would be a

big step forward in closing the disparities gaps that plague the Twin Cities. Service Employees
International Union (SEIU) Local 26 recommends the following steps to reverse these dangerous
Worker-centered enforcement of safety rules. Walkthroughs and
information for janitors to resolve issues at worksite where they know
best. Janitors are experts in their field, they know what works, what
doesn’t, what can be accomplished safely and when they’re being pushed
to their limits. Workload walkthroughs with janitor, union steward and
supervisor are a necessary tool to resolve issues at worksite.
Sustainable staffing levels. Many janitors clean the equivalent of more
than 20 houses every night. Establishing reasonable staffing levels, such
as 40,000 square feet per night and 225 bathroom units, would ensure
manageable workloads and prevent on-the-job injuries.
Data driven analysis of how to improve. Fielding an academic study
from the University of Minnesota to evaluate ergonomic best practices
and asses the effects of workload on janitors.

The Twin Cities commercial real estate market is flourishing, but the janitors who clean and
maintain office buildings are still on hard times. In the last decade, janitorial services contractors
have reduced the number of janitors, forcing the remaining workforce to cover more territory,
leading to injuries and high stress for workers. The work is labor intensive, and fast-paced,
demanding heavy lifting, repetitive motions, bending and crouching in unnatural positions.
Building cleaning and maintenance occupations had the highest rate of days-away-from-work
due to on-the-job injury or illness in Minnesota during 2014, nearly three times the average of
all private sector occupations.1
The cleaning industry is in crisis and janitors are facing the worst of it. Service Employees
International Union Local 26 janitorial members have experienced drastic increases in workload;
many say the changes began more than 30 years ago, when building owners started contracting
out cleaning services rather than employing those workers directly. Since then, the number
of janitors cleaning many of the commercial office buildings in the Twin Cities has fallen and
continues to fall.

Executive Summary & Overview | 4

Baker Center, in downtown Minneapolis, is the ninth largest office complex in the Twin

Cities. Prior to the mid-eighties, Baker Center’s building cleaners were hired as direct employees
to the building owner. Huge changes swept the industry when contracting companies began
taking over cleaning duties of commercial office space.
Jessica Hansen started as a janitor in 1977 when she was hired by Marsden Building Maintenance
to clean office buildings in downtown Minneapolis. She was transferred to Baker Center in
1984, shortly after Marsden took over. Most of her Baker Center coworkers were formerly direct
employees who had become subcontracted Marsden employees overnight. At least 10 janitors
were terminated immediately with the takeover.2 Before subcontracting, certain janitors were
assigned to only clean restrooms, a few others worked on weekends to cover tasks that require
periodic maintenance. When those shifts were eliminated, the work was divided among the
remaining employees, causing a huge increase in workload, a shift in workplace culture and no
increase in pay. More than 30 years ago, Jessica’s daily route consisted of cleaning one entire
floor in 8 hours. Today, she has to clean the same amount in four and a half hours to have time
to finish the rest of her route. Other janitors who clean Baker Center are expected to clean
two floors and four restrooms. Janitors used to have sufficient time to get to know the people
they worked with, they helped each other out, and they felt comfortable asking for help when
they needed it. It was not easy work, but it was not strenuous. Jessica says the atmosphere has
changed now, janitors are always rushing to finish their work, they hardly say “hello” to one
another. They’re overworked, overstressed and exhausted, and it’s taking a toll on their bodies
and health.


Racial demographics of the workforce changed significantly with subcontracting. In 1984,
Jessica’s coworkers were mostly white, a few were black and the majority were U.S. born. That
has changed over time as contractors have recruited a workforce mostly consisting of people
of color, immigrants and women. Good paying janitorial jobs with pensions and free healthcare
disappeared with subcontractors offering less and less, and immigrant workers had to accept
work for lower pay and fewer benefits than American-born workers. This race to the bottom
meant vulnerable, more exploited populations were forced to take jobs Americans were no
longer willing to do. Today, more than 90% of the janitorial membership of Local 26 are people
of color, the majority being immigrants from Latin America, East Africa and Southeast Asia.3
Subcontracting causes confusion, especially about who is responsible for janitors’ low-wages
and working conditions, and the destruction of communities they cause. Legally, the cleaning
contractor is the employer, but the conditions of the contract are at the mercy of the building
owner. When a building owner has a cleaning job to fill, they want to pay the least for janitorial
service. To secure a contract, cleaning companies must prove that they can provide the services
required for the cheapest price, which usually comes down to either paying workers less, or
assigning fewer workers to complete the job.
Without janitors to disinfect objects and surfaces, clear trash and perform maintenance to
make workspaces comfortable, employees’ workdays would be much more hazardous, unclean
and unpleasant. Generally, people do not think of janitorial work as a dangerous or hazardous
occupation, but research and labor statistics demonstrate that janitors have numerous exposures
to both chemical and physical risks, and have a high rate of injury and illness. There were
39,000 incidences of occupational illnesses and injury among janitors in 2013, the 7th most
incidence occurring occupation in the United States.4 Despite these alarming trends, there is
a lack of research addressing the relationships between these exposures and health effects, or
documentation of injury and illness rates in the industry over time.
Local 26 member surveys have shown that more than 64% of janitors reported feeling “pain
sometimes or often,” with half saying their workload has gone up since the last contract in
2012. Janitors made gains by strengthening their contract, but have had to pay for it in increased
To maintain the same level of cleanliness and maintenance with fewer people doing the work,
they have to work harder, faster and complete more tasks than ever before and janitors are being
pushed to their limits. In fact, workers across industries are struggling under great pressure to
perform more and more work with stagnant or even reduced pay. This is a great mess of our
time, US workers are more productive than ever, making companies more profitable, without
adequate pay and mounting stress.

Overview | 6

Fewer Workers,
More Work
Prior to the 1970s, most building owners hired their janitorial staff directly. By the 1980s,
the industry had largely shifted to a highly-competitive contracted one in which janitors
became employees of contractors, not buildings, and contractors faced pressures to hold down
janitors’ wages and benefits to win accounts. Today, when a cleaning contract comes up for
bid, building owners and property managers typically go with the lowest bidder, and since
janitorial work does not vary greatly between companies, the most significant expense being
employee wages, cleaning contractors are forced to cut staffing and increase productivity to
offer the lowest bid. Additionally, building owners maintain a degree of separation from lowwage, vulnerable workers and responsibility to their health and safety.
In 1982, the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) had a union contract
with Local 26 janitors, and a separate contract was signed between the Contract Cleaners
and the union. At this time, full time general cleaners were earning $6.27 per hour ($15.42
in today’s wages) in the BOMA contract, while contracted cleaners were earning $4.99
per hour (equal to $12.27 today).8
Many Twin Cities janitors have experienced a decrease in the number of workers tasked to
clean the buildings they work in. Below is a chart demonstrating the decreases in staffing that
occurred in Twin Cities buildings between 2006 and 2015:5

Decrease in Number of Cleaners in Twin Cities Building


























Profits Are High,
Injuries Too
Janitors are working to the point of overexertion and injury.

One day the client complained about the floor I clean and I told my supervisor it’s
too much work for one shift, he needs to cut the workload. This supervisor told
me to “vacuum with one hand, mop with the other and dust with your mouth.”
No one deserves this treatment, but people are intimidated to discuss workload or
even report when they get injured.”
-Lucia, Harvard Janitor who cleans RBC Plaza
A few years ago, when everyone at my building was part-time, I used to clean one
whole floor in 5 hours, we even had a 30 minute break. Now we have to clean 4
floors in 8 hours, and many nights I can’t even take my break or I won’t finish all
my work. If I don’t finish my job and a client complains, there are consequences.”
-Anonymous ABM Janitor who cleans Normandale Lakes Office Park

Janitors described the process when they speak up about their high workload. If a worker
believes their workload is too much to complete during their shift and their supervisor chooses
to address the problem, they can conduct a walkthrough of the route to assess workload.
If the supervisor determines it is too much work, they can cut part of the route or omit
detailing tasks and come to a new agreement with the worker. Everyone’s happy for a while,
then slowly the supervisor starts requiring more detailing, or changing job assignments. Little
by little the supervisor adds more and more work until janitors have to run to complete all
their tasks on time. Local 26 has tried to address the workload problem on several occasions,
so far nothing we have tried has provided long term solutions.

“We’re tired and disgusted of playing the same game over again with the company, we need
real, long term solutions.”
-Anonymous, ABM Janitor who cleans Centennial Lakes Office Park

Profits Are High, Injuries Too | 8

Besides the inherent environmental and physical injury risks faced by janitors, behavioral
and work process issues should be considered. Workers are forced to put the goal, or the
profit ahead of their own health and safety. They are so pressured to focus on the the task of
cleaning, with less regard to safety that it fails to be a priority in the hazardous environments
they work in.

Either we take all the safety precautions but then we don’t finish the whole job, or
we feel the pressure, we have to hurry and we’re less careful. That’s when we feel
stress and get injured.”
-Anonymous ABM Janitor who cleans Boston Scientific7
Four people got injured at the building I clean between April to December, and I
was one of them. Another coworker and I were working together to carry a heavy
trash bag that was full of coffee grounds. Even with two people, it was still too
heavy and I strained my back. Normally, the utility person takes out the big trash
bags, but they were too busy that day, they weren’t going get it done, and we knew
if there was a client complaint, it would have made things worse for us. Because of
my injury, I had to be on light duty for weeks, but the worst part is I’m in so much
pain, I can’t play with my children.”
-Elia, Able Janitor who cleans Ameriprise CSC

Janitors have to vacuum, mop, dust and change trash bags with wrists and shoulders swollen
due to repetitive movements. They run back and forth with heavy loads, up and down stairs,
bending and crouching on stiff backs, achy knees and sore legs.
On average, Local 26 janitors clean the equivalent per square feet of more than 20 houses
every night, while some clean much more than that.9 The union recommends that while
there are not industry standards on square footage for commercial janitorial services, and the
variability between work spaces, cleaning requirements, and available equipment have been
voiced as reasons for not creating square footage maximums, there are a number of formulas
being used by the industry to determine how many janitors are needed to clean a given space.
Guidance developed by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Center for Education
Statistics, and the National Forum on Education Statistics provides a five-tiered system of
cleanliness and square footage estimates.10
Cleaning Levels 1 and 2 are normally reserved for hospitals and clinics, day care facilities and food
service areas. Level 3 cleaning is the normal level for most school facilities. This level is acceptable to
most stakeholders and does not pose a health risk. A janitor can clean approximately 28,000 to 31,000
square feet in eight hours to this standard. Level 4 cleaning is not normally considered acceptable
in a school environment. A janitor could clean to 45,000 to 50,000 square feet in 8 hours to Level 4
standards. Level 5 cleaning can lead to an unhealthy situation. A janitor can clean 85,000 to 90,000
square feet in an 8 hour period to Level 5 standards. These guidelines note that the above figures are
estimates and that the actual number of square feet that can be cleaned will vary depending on the

Safety Record
Although janitorial work is not widely thought to be dangerous or hazardous work, statistics
show that on-the-job injuries occur at extremely high rates. In 2013 there were 39,000 incidences
of occupational illnesses and injury among janitors nationally, the 7th most incidence occurring
occupation. Overexertion and bodily reaction was the most common cause of injury, followed by falls,
slips and trips, and repetitive motion involving micro-tasks, or detailing. These injuries caused injured
janitors to spend on average 21 days-away-from-work that year.11
Injury incidence rates for major occupation groups generally follow the degree to which the
occupations require physical exertion and exposure to job hazards. Building and grounds cleaning
and maintenance occupations had the highest rate of days-away-from-work due to injury or illness in
Minnesota during 2014, at nearly three times the average of all private sector occupations.

Average annual incidence rates of days-away-from-work cases by major
occupation group, per 10,000 FTE workers, private sector, 2010-2012
Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance


Transportation and material moving
Healthcare support
Construction and extraction
Installation, maintenance and repair


Healthcare practictioners and technical


Protective Service
Total, all occupations


Community and social services
Personal care and service
Food preparation and serving related


Farming, fishing and forestry


Sales and related


Office and administrative support
Life, physical and social science


Arts, design, entertainment, sports and media


Education, training and library
Architecture and engineering
Computer and mathematical
Business and financial operations


Safety Record | 10

When workers experience high injury rates, there is a significant economic toll. In 2010, janitors
accounted for more than $4.1 billion in medical and productivity costs in the United States due to
occupational injuries and illness, following only retail salespersons as the second most costly among
low-wage occupations.12 Medical bills made up 37% of those costs, the other 63% were losses in
The burden is further complicated because workers’ compensation insurance either does not apply or
fails to cover many of these costs, which can bankrupt families living on the margin. Insurers cover
less than one-fourth of the costs of occupational injuries and illnesses.13 The rest falls on workers’
families, non-workers-compensation health insurers, and taxpayer-funded programs.
When low-wage workers miss even a few days of pay while recovering from an occupational injury
or illness, it has far-reaching ripple effects on communities. Janitors might have to cut back on their
spending right away, causing a negative impact to the local economy. Families with children might
skip meals or cut back on the heat, money-saving tactics that can put family members at risk.

Medical and Productivity Costs for Nonfatal Injuries
& Illnesses and Fatal Injuries & Fatal Diseases
for the 65 Low-Wage Occupations, 2010
Low-Wage Occupations

Total Costs,

Medical Costs,

Costs, Millions

Retail Salespersons




Janitors and Cleaners, Except Maids &
Housekeeping Cleaners




Maids & Housekeeping Cleaners




Stock Clerks & Order Fillers




Combined Food Preparation & Serving
Workers, Including Fast Food




Cooks, Restaraunt








Food Preparation Workers




Driver/Sales Workers




Home Health Aids




Waiters and Waitresses




Personal Care Aids




Even so, it’s widely believed among janitors that most injuries, even
serious, go unreported.

Rarely are janitors provided with a written description of their job requirements, and without
clarification of which areas they’re responsible for, janitors clean as much as they can, sometimes
cleaning more than is required of them out of fear. Union stewards have tried to mitigate the problem
by advising new workers, but often find that a supervisor has gotten to them first and warned them
not to get involved with the union, or take advice from stewards.

“When there is a new
hire, bosses assign
them more work than
the last person who
did their job. They
push everyone past
their limits, many
people are afraid to
speak up out of fear
of losing their jobs or
facing intimidation
from management.”
-Aurora, ABM Janitor
who cleans Seagate

Safety Record | 12

Janitors also reported high levels of supervisory mistreatment and strong and increasing levels of
When a worker suffers an injury that causes them to spend time away from work, the employer may
choose not to cover that person’s shifts and cause further burden to the coworkers who are then
forced to carry the extra load. Some workers feel guilty and return to work without proper time to
heal, in order to relieve their struggling coworkers. Others go back to work early because they can’t
afford to miss another paycheck.
Ninety-percent of Local 26 janitors are people of color, the majority of them immigrants. Racism,
sexism and harassment from their supervisors are problems members face; many janitors feel they
are seen as “easy targets”, which adds to their mental strain. Countless immigrant workers have
arrived from countries or regions in which governments and companies have harshly repressed
collective worker power and unionization.

We fought for a year and a half to lighten our workload because it was too much
for us. After a year and a half they got rid of bathrooms from our routes and added
people who clean just the bathrooms.
One day I was reaching to clean a mirror and I felt an unbelievable pain and
heard a tearing sound in my back. It was late and I had to finish my work, so I
didn’t report the injury until I got home that night at 1:00 am. They gave me a
‘final warning’ for reporting the injury a few hours late, but they didn’t give me
the warning until one month after the it happened. I fought the warning with the
union and they changed it from a final warning to a verbal warning, but I know
it was in retaliation, because I was a strong fighter for the workload resolution.”
-Ana, SBM Janitor who cleans Medtronic

The janitorial industry’s high turnover rate also can present a problem. Whenever there is high
turnover, the chance of workers being well-trained and experienced in processes and procedures
decreases, and the chance of injury and improper procedures and ineffective methods goes up.15 When
new janitors come to a jobsite and are tasked to work without a written job description designating
what areas they’re responsible for, they clean more than is required of them out of fear, and without
proper training this can be dangerous. Furthermore, cleaning companies benefit from high turnover
when fewer employee injuries are reported to regulatory agencies, because the injured worker is no
longer an employee, therefore avoiding fines or improvement costs. It also provides replacements
from injured and tired workers on a continuing basis; and unstable workers are less likely to become
union activists.

Contracting janitorial work creates layers of protection between building owners and and janitors.
Building owners are not held accountable for the wages or working conditions of those who clean up
their business. Contracting cleaners benefit from immigrant workers, not only because immigrants
work for lower wages, but also because of lack of knowledge of rights, resources and language
barriers to organizing.

Most people are scared. If management hears you complaining or they know you’re
working with the union, they abuse you or even fire you. They harass you and give
you extra assignments as punishment, the worst jobs. They follow you, they bother
you, watch your every move and you can’t escape it. Supervisors talk to each other
so even when I transferred to another building, my old supervisor told the new
supervisor about me and I got the same harassment.
-Anonymous ABM Janitor who cleans Normandale Lakes16

Janitors wake up tired, arms achy, legs still sore and swollen from last night’s work. Pair that with
the fact that janitors have to worry about facing intimidation from their supervisor, they’re talked
down to and expected to do more work than their body allows. Janitors say it’s unrealistic to expect
workers to do a good job and provide great service if they haven’t even recovered from the previous
night’s work. Janitors are not alone in this fight; overworked and underpaid is the reality of the
majority of American workers.
Local 26 janitors have fought to be heard by their
employers about the toll high workload takes
on their bodies, and in doing so have been met
with discussion about bottom lines, productivity
levels and nonunion competitors. It is a priority
for Local 26 to protect the industry against
nonunion companies who try to undermine
and undercut our standards, but the data shows
significant drops in janitorial staffing levels even
when one union cleaning comopany loses a
building contract to another.17
Workload and productivity have risen dramatically
in the last two decades, while pay has not come
close to keeping up. To rejuvenate a healthy and
fair janitorial industry, workers need not be seen
as costs that detract from profitability, rather as
the engines that drive revenue and growth.

Lucia, Harvard Janitor who cleans RBC Plaza

Health | 14

Employers would benefit from decreasing and limiting janitorial workload. When janitors have ample
time to complete their assigned tasks, they perform better, prevent injury, experience less work stress
and have fewer days-away-from-work due to illness and injury. No one wants to see people hurt
on the job, and there are simple ways to reduce workplace injuries and stress for janitors, ensure
tenants’ needs are being met and contribute to the overall health of building assets:

Worker-centered enforcement of safety rules. Walkthroughs and information for
janitors to resolve issues at worksite where they know best. Janitors are experts in their
field, they know what works, what doesn’t, what can be accomplished safely and when
they’re being pushed to their limits. Workload walkthroughs with janitor, union steward
and supervisor are a necessary tool to resolve issues at worksite.

Sustainable staffing levels. Establishing reasonable staffing levels, such as 40,000
square feet per night and 225 bathroom units, would ensure manageable workloads and
prevent on-the-job injuries.

Data driven analysis of how to improve. Fielding an academic study from the
University of Minnesota to evaluate ergonomic best practices and asses the effects
of workload on janitors.
In Minnesota, where people of color have endured the worst racial disparities in the country, Local 26
janitors expressed strongly that workload is the biggest issue they face on-the-job today. Janitors make
up a historically exploited workforce of immigrants and people of color, populations vulnerable to
racism and abuse. It is crucial to consider how working conditions contribute to stark and devastating
inequalities. Janitors need permanent solutions to the growing workload problem, not temporary
fixes. A massive change in the industry is long overdue before another janitor suffers injury while
maintaining the building of the one world’s most profitable companies.

1. 2014. Minnesota Workplace Safety Report, 2012.
2. Marsden Janitor interview. December 20, 2015
3. Survey of SEIU Local 26 membership.
4. 2004. Services to Buildings and Dwellings - May 2014 Occupational Employment Statistics
http://www.bls. gov/oes/current/naics4_561700.htm.
5. This was determined by comparing staffing lists of buildings from 2006 and 2015 and
counting number of full-time, primary shift general cleaners from both years.
6. ABM Janitor interview. December 18, 2015
7. ABM Janitor interview, December 17, 2015
8. Comparison of “Agreement Between Building Owners and Managers Association and

Service Employees Union, Local 26. Term of Agreement 5/1/82 through 4/30/1985” and

“Collective Bargaining Agreement by and between Minneapolis - St. Paul Service
Contract Cleaners Association and Service Employees Internation al Union Local 26. Term
of Agreement 1/1/1982 through 12/31/1984”
9. Determined by dividing the average square footage cleaned per janitor by 1,800 square
feet, the size of an aver age home.
10. Executive Summary: Health Impact Review of H-0915.3/15 Concerning Commercial
Janitorial Services. Report. June 24, 2015.
HealthImpactReviews/HIR-2015-09-H-0915.3_15. pdf.
11. 2004. Services to Buildings and Dwellings - May 2014 Occupational Employment Statistics
12. 2012. Numbers and Costs of Occupational Injury and Illness in Low-Wage Occupations
13. Ibid
14. Survey of SEIU Local 26 membership.
15. 2013. Cleaning up safety - Safety+Health Magazine. http://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.
16. ABM Janitor interview, December 17, 2015
17. This was determined by comparing staffing lists of buildings from 2006 and 2015 and 1]
counting number of full-time, primary shift general cleaners from both years.