On Tuesday, Adriana Vasquez sat to the left of the table where JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon testified before the House Financial Services Committee for two hours. A 37 year-old janitor and a single mother of three, she had traveled from her home in Houston to Washington, DC to ask Dimon one simple question.
When the hearing adjourned, she crossed to talk to him.
Vasquez is accustomed to speaking to executives at the JPMorgan Chase Tower where she works, so she wasn’t intimidated. But she says she “felt strange” as she approached the table.
“I’m not used to being in that environment—surrounded by cameras and journalists,” Vasquez tells me through an interpreter. “It’s chaotic. But when it came time to ask the question I didn’t feel strange at all. He’s a person, just like me—the only difference is he has money, and I don’t.”
She stood before Dimon and asked: “Despite making billions last year, why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?”
Vasquez says Dimon’s entourage reacted “as if I had a weapon on me,” quickly surrounding him.
“Call my office,” Dimon replied, before being ushered toward the exit.
Vasquez had wanted to add “walk a day in my shoes,” but didn’t get a chance. That’s exactly what Vasquez and over 3,000 of her colleagues in Houston are asking building owners and cleaning contractors to do as they consider the janitor’s demand for a raise to $10 an hour over the next three years.
“If the big shots don’t want to pay attention to us, well, they better get on notice because we’re going to make them pay attention to us,” says Vasquez. “We will let them see how important we are to their buildings—those buildings do not clean themselves. I’m feeling optimistic that we janitors can win this.” --Adriana Vasquez
The janitors are currently paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually, despite cleaning the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world—Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell, JPMorgan Chase, and others in the “City of Millionaires.” The cleaning contractors have countered with an offer of a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years.
Vasquez says she doesn’t think people realize just how hard their work is. She cleans twenty-four bathrooms on eleven floors, from 5:30 to 11:30 pm, five evenings a week. She describes the work this way: before clocking in, she makes sure her cart is stocked with chemicals and supplies. After clocking in, she literally runs up to the floor if the tenants aren’t around.
“It’s like a marathon, and there just isn’t enough time,” she says. “Once I go in I have only five hours to clean eleven floors of bathrooms. That’s one male and one female bathroom on each floor, four toilets in each bathroom, and then two private bathrooms.”
Vasquez says one floor receives “detail work” every night.
“That means really getting in there—scrubbing all the dirt and grime from the toilets. You need to leave it spotless, you need to leave it white,” she says. “You have to dust every [inch] of those bathrooms, make sure everything is shining—no dust underneath the toilets, no dust anywhere. The place where people grab the paper towels has to shine too.”
There are a number of women over age 60 who work as janitors in her building. She worries about them, especially the ones who vacuum and clean the offices as Vasquez did before she was assigned to clean bathrooms.
“They carry excessive loads—literally two garbage carts at a time because there isn’t enough time to do the work,” Vasquez says. “And the vacuums that we use—we have to put them on our backs. They get so hot, it’s dangerous. I’m 37 and it’s hard for me, so I know that these older women are having an even harder time but they have to work.”
Vazquez says that some of the janitors develop a rapport with the people whose offices they have cleaned for years. Occasionally, the employees will give janitors a gift or a gratuity. But even that’s getting more difficult now.
“To protect themselves from theft accusations, the building owners and cleaning contractors have created a weird buffer between people,” she says. “So if a tenant wants to give a flower arrangement left over in the office, or leftover food, or just a bottle of water—anything—we have to go to our bosses and get it approved and do paperwork. So now, when tenants offer, we often just say, ‘Don’t bother.’ They make it almost impossible for people who work in the same building to interact like human beings.”
But with the janitors now asking for a wage that would help them and their families escape poverty, tenants and building owners have a chance to do far more than offer a kind Christmas gift—which brings us back to Dimon and JPMorgan Chase.
The company is the third largest building owner among all the owners that the 3,200 SEIU janitors clean for in Houston. The fact is that the cleaning contractors are going to do whatever the owners tell them to do, so in short—What Will Jamie Do?
“If the big shots don’t want to pay attention to us, well, they better get on notice because we’re going to make them pay attention to us,” says Vasquez. “We will let them see how important we are to their buildings—those buildings do not clean themselves. I’m feeling optimistic that we janitors can win this.”