Jessica Hansen is 72 and has done the same work now for 39 years, scrubbing down and cleaning the shiny offices where people work. If you are one of those office workers in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, someone like Hansen likely cleans your cubicle every night.
When you go home, Hansen arrives, gathering her supplies and working in a silent, empty building, cubicle by cubicle, floor by floor.
She starts with the trash, emptying each bin, replacing the bag with a new one. Then she moves on to the bathrooms, two of them, men’s and women’s. Each has five stalls. She scrubs the toilets and floors, wipes down the walls and cleans the mirrors. Next she scours the large kitchen that workers use for lunch, wiping down the tables and cleaning and putting away any utensils left out, and empties the garbage cans.
Then it’s on to the cubicles, dusting each one from the tops of shelving and dividers to the legs of the chairs, taking care to not move any personal items. If she can, Hansen does the “edging,” or dusting off the tops of the baseboards along the walls.
“Anything you can think of that can be wiped down, dusted and cleaned, I do,” she said.
Next, Hansen vacuums the floor, both between the cubicles and the open spaces, if she has time. If she’s feeling pressed, she “spot cleans” the carpet, looking for bad areas. Four and a half hours after she starts, she takes a dinner break. It used to be that Hansen had an entire shift to clean one floor thoroughly. Not anymore.
Hansen eats quickly, then moves on to her second floor. Though it is the same size as the first floor, she has only about three hours to finish it. Then she catches the 1:10 a.m. bus home to the Powderhorn Park neighborhood, perhaps stopping at the 24-hour grocery store where she often runs into other janitors running their nocturnal errands.
On Wednesday, Hansen will be among the 4,000 janitors who will not go to work. She will strike for one day to fight for a raise from her bosses. Her union, Local 26 of the Service Employees International Union, represents janitors for cleaning companies who contract with office building owners. Hansen and other full-time janitors make $14.62 an hour, while part-time workers make $11 to $13. SEIU wants a $1 increase across the board, more sick days (they get three) and better working conditions.
“I’m not looking forward to [the strike], but you got to do what you got to do,” said Hansen.
When Hansen first started with the company in 1977, she said 100 percent of her health care was covered. That has dropped to 80 percent. Pay “has gone up slowly, but compared to inflation it’s actually down.”
“Pay is very important,” said Hansen. “For some people, the workload is the biggest issue. At one time, it wasn’t too bad. You didn’t have the extreme pressure you do now. Every time we get a halfway decent raise, it seems the workload goes up. Sometimes I’m just exhausted by my break and want to go home.”
I know what she means. My dad finished his working life as a janitor of a local school, and I’d see him come home late at night and collapse. It was good, honest work and he was proud to do it, but it was hard.
It has been decades since janitors have gone on strike. But with all the talk of fixing massive and growing inequality, from city hall to the presidential election, SEIU saw it as the right moment to make a statement. When Hansen started, she worked alongside mostly white workers. Now, 90 percent are people of color, including many immigrants. There may be no clearer way to make gains for low-income minority workers than actions such as this strike.
“A one-day strike can mobilize the membership and get them involved, generate publicity, and provide opportunities for building community support,” said John Budd, a professor of work and organizations in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “[It can also demonstrate] to the employers that the workers and other support can be mobilized and a longer strike will be painful for the employers, both in terms of public relations and in terms of economics.”
Despite the fact that various studies show that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans has never been wider, Budd said public sympathy for the janitors is uncertain, at best.
“In terms of public reaction, we of course live in highly charged times, and unions are lightning rods for these highly charged feelings,” said Budd. “So we’re likely to see strong positive and negative reactions.”
Hansen, for one, just hopes the union and cleaning companies can come to an agreement so she doesn’t have to miss more work. She’s augmenting her pay with Social Security, so she manages to make ends meet. She is still driving a 1995 Jeep, however, and she keeps her thermostat in the low 50s to save money. She keeps putting off fixing some crumbling stairs on her 100-year-old house.
If Hansen’s fibromyalgia does not make work impossible, she hopes to keep working a little longer.
Asked how she planned to make it when she retires, Hansen paused.
“Actually, I don’t know,” she said.