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Fairfax and Loudoun office cleaners vote to strike if needed over wages

Another strike may be on the horizon for the D.C. area, this time led by office cleaners who say wages have stagnated even after they were expected to keep working through the pandemic.

About 9,100 janitors, more than 3,000 of them in Northern Virginia, are voting this week on whether to go on strike if they’re unable to agree on a new contract with the Washington Service Contractors Association (WSCA) before the existing one expires on Oct. 15.

Cleaners employed in commercial buildings across Fairfax and Loudoun counties unanimously voted on Tuesday (Oct. 3) to authorize a strike, following the lead of their colleagues in D.C., who voted a day earlier, according to 32BJ SEIU, the Service Employees International Union’s branch for the D.C. region.

Coinciding with a three-day strike by Kaiser Permanente employees that’s reportedly the largest ever by U.S. health care workers, Baltimore area cleaners were set to vote yesterday (Wednesday), followed by Montgomery County workers today and Arlington County workers tomorrow.

“No one wants to strike, but we are ready to strike if employers keep pushing cuts that cleaners can’t afford,” 32BJ SEIU Executive Vice President Jaime Contreras said.

According to the union, a core sticking point in the contract negotiations, which began in June, has been a proposed reduction in shift lengths from five to four hours for about 1,100 cleaners — a third of the Northern Virginia workforce.

The change would amount to a 20% pay cut for the affected cleaners, who would have earn $100 less per week and have less time to do the same amount of work, the union says.

Peter Chatilovicz, the WSCA’s lead negotiator, told FFXnow yesterday that proposal has been taken off the table, noting that it would’ve primarily affected D.C. workers. The goal was “to provide flexibility to bring in new workers,” not cut wages for existing ones, as commercial property owners adapt to a challenging office market, he said.

The region has lost about 1,000 office janitorial jobs in recent years, according to 32BJ SEIU. A union spokesperson confirmed the shifts proposal was “verbally” withdrawn, but as of last night, nothing has been put on the record in writing.

The cleaners and WSCA last held contract negotiations four years ago, and there’s a “tentative agreement” for the next one to be the same length, extending to October 2027, Chatilovicz says. He’s “cautiously optimistic” that a deal will be reached in time, but the two groups are still split on pay.

“That’s the big issue right now is coming up with a wage compromise so that employees who are not the highest paid employees in the area or in America get a fair wage during this time, and so that we’re able to still be competitive and deal with the issues in the industry,” Chatilovicz said. “So, it’s a typical negotiation where we’re trying to exchange proposals and come up with a compromise that management can live with and the union is satisfied with.”

Under their current contract, Fairfax County cleaners earn $15 per hour, while Loudoun cleaners get $12.50 an hour. They also receive benefits like paid vacation, holidays and sick leave, health insurance if they work full-time and access to a training, education and legal services fund, per 32BJ SEIU.

While those rates exceed Virginia’s minimum wage, albeit just barely in Loudoun County, they’re not enough to match inflated prices and soaring rents, the union argues.

Alejandria Paz, a member of the union’s bargaining team who has worked as a cleaner at 1881 Campus Commons in Reston for over a decade, says she’s already struggling to keep up with the rising costs of food, rent, transportation and other necessities.

However, she also sees the prospect of reduced hours and pay as a frustrating reflection of how little attitudes toward cleaning staff have changed, despite the heightened attention to building cleanliness and ventilation brought by COVID-19.

“During the pandemic we were called essential, but employers pay us like we are disposable,” Paz said. “When no one else was around, we were the only ones keeping buildings clean and supporting local businesses. We were the only ones riding the bus and the train. We kept working even as we and our loved ones got sick and died from this disease. If we strike, it’s because we must in order to survive.”

Almost 200 32BJ SEIU members who work in buildings on the East Coast have died from COVID-19, according to a pledge of support for the potentially striking workers signed by 45 lawmakers. Fairfax County signees include the entire Board of Supervisors except Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the board’s only Republican member.

In the pandemic’s wake, labor unions have seen a surge in support and momentum, as workers in industries from movies and television to auto manufacturing and mail delivery push for better pay and working conditions, along with protections from technology some fear will sideline humans.

Before Tuesday’s strike vote, 32BJ held a rally outside Discovery Square, the Reston office buildings at 12010 and 12012 Sunset Hills Road that are owned by developer Boston Properties and count Microsoft among their tenants. As of June 30, Boston Properties reported earning $1.9 billion from real estate for the year, before taxes and interest, according to its investors’ website.

Speakers at the rally included delegates Holly Seibold (D-35) and Kathy Tran (D-42) as well as Fairfax County School Board at-large member Karen Keys-Gamarra — who’s seeking to represent Reston in the House of Delegates — and Adele McClure, a delegate candidate in Arlington.

State Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33), who’s running for the new 38th Senate District, was scheduled to speak but had to cancel because she got sick, according to a 32BJ spokesperson.

“I urge employers to stop cutting hours and settle a contract that helps workers support our economy and public transportation,” Boysko said in a statement. “The last thing our County needs is the chaos of a strike that would disrupt support for businesses and keep people away when we need them back more than ever.”

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