Janitors Face Low Wages and Little Respect
in Addition to their Unpalatable Task
By Catherine J. Rourke
All labor that serves humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken
with painstaking excellence.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Their faces never appear among the snapshots of the beautiful people, frozen on the pages of glossy city magazines. Their feet never enter the front doors of elegant spas and salons. Their eyes don’t peruse the wine list at fine restaurants, and their lips never sip champagne at lavish, black-tie soirees.
The city’s restroom attendants are too busy removing litter bins of unspeakables from its public bathrooms – for many, just one of their two or three low-wage jobs.
Their hands scrub the urinals and wipe the toilet seat splatters of thousands of tourists and locals. They remove an array of debris off public sinks – the soap scum, spit and splatters of mankind. They flush unflushed toilets and replenish paper towels, seat liners and toilet tissue. But there’s one thing their hands never do: receive a paycheck or a token of appreciation worthy of their efforts.
Their ears listen to a perennial symphony of flushing, faucets, flinging stall latches and hand dryers, in addition to the diverse song of human excrement. But there’s one sound their ears never hear: expressions of gratitude for their thankless task.
Their noses smell an assortment of stenches, from hairspray and aerosols to disinfectants and industrial cleaners. They smells farts and barf and babies’ diapers, a far cry from any bed of roses. But there’s one fragrance their noses never experience: the sweet smell of vocational and financial success.
The tourists whisk past them as they push their carts of plungers, mops and trash bags from stall to stall – nameless, faceless, invisible, untouchable – as society remains in brutal denial that somebody’s gotta empty those hygiene disposal cans.
A constant struggle
Rosie Delgado, a 42-year-old mother of three, leaves her home in Cottonwood, Arizona, at 3:30 p.m. for the commute to her $7.65 per hour, part-time janitorial job at a local hotel. The single mom nets less than $200 a week and has no health insurance, pension, vacation or sick pay. A raise appears as remote as checking into the Honeymoon Suite. And with average monthly rentals in the four-digit range, any hope of affording a home in town goes right down the toilet.
"It's a constant struggle,” she said. “I have to choose between buying food for my family or paying a bill. There’s just never enough to cover everything.”
Faced with the economic plight of teen pregnancy, Rosie started cleaning restrooms at age 17. She came to Sedona’s Promised Land seeking solace from Phoenix’s urban plight and a decent place to raise her kids. She planned to finish her education but instead became trapped in vulgar vocational choices as she struggled to support her family after her husband passed away.
“I’ve had two or three jobs for most of my life,” she said. “I always started at minimum wage and did whatever it took. But I really wanted to be a dancer.”
For now, she dances with toilets, elevating her task to a fine art as she spins giant tissue rolls onto the dispenser spools with her own special flair. Rosie could have joined the invisible army of pink collar workers who work in the hotel laundry for minimum wage. She could sell disposable cameras in the gift shop at a facility that boasts sustainable practices, all while using groundwater to keep its golf course lush. But instead she said she found more “dignity” scrubbing toilets at $6.25 an hour.
Dignity. That word that doesn’t come easily to Rosie and her co-workers. They understand exactly what Rodney Dangerfield meant when he said, “I don’t get no respect.”
“Not only do we have a bad job that nobody wants to do, but it’s the way we’re treated by the snooty-nosed public who totally ignore us – it just makes it all the worse,” Rosie said. “They expect the world and that you owe them everything.”
Yet Rosie and her colleagues are performing a noble service for that hotel and for Sedona – for meager wages. At best, the job offers some flexibility and freedom. At worst, it’s an assault to the senses, as well as the spirit.
“I take a lot of pride in whatever I do, even if it’s just cleaning a toilet,” she notes. “I try to do it the best I can despite the lousy pay.”
Nationally, the median wage for restroom attendants is $8.77 per hour. According to the 2000 Cost of Living Index figures – a now grossly outdated report in today’s economic climate, no less than it was then − the average single breadwinner needs to earn at least $10/hour for basic needs such as food, housing, transportation, health care, clothing and insurance, plus household and personal expenses. That’s assuming, of course, that folks have lots of good credit and plenty of plastic to manage car payments, auto repairs and medical or other emergencies.
Yet, nine years later, wages for many workers fall far below the prerequisite for basic survival. The Cost of Living Index doesn’t include “luxuries” such as cable TV, home phone or cellular service, Internet service, computer supplies, haircuts, video rentals, newspapers and magazines, home furnishings, small appliances, occasional Wal-Mart sprees or eating out at Pizza Hut.
Now, nearly 10 years later, if we added another lousy $5 to the CLI prerequisite survival wage, it still doesn’t reflect a living wage, with most workers’ wages in the Verde Valley failing to come even close to what was proposed then. Dark Ages, indeed, for those who need to eke a living. And many will remember the brutal battle to raise the state minimum wage just a couple of years ago from its prehistoric $5.15/hour.
At Rosie’s hourly wage of $7.65, her monthly paychecks would hardly total over $1,000 – before Social Security and Medicare taxes – if she worked full-time. Yet a single parent with one child needs to earn $14.12 per hour, or $28,241 per year, to make ends meet, according to the Index’s archaic standards – insufficient for just one person to meet regional housing needs and the cost of living in general. The report claims that a single parent with two children needs $16.22 per hour, or $32,449 per year.
Therefore, it’s easy to see that, like other low-wage workers, Rosie simply isn’t cutting the mustard.
“But I feel I’ve got job security,” she boasts – unlike her friend Mildred, a Phoenix telephone operator who’s been ousted by computer-generated voice menus. “What are they gonna replace me with – a robot? No way. You need human beings to clean up human messes.”
Surviving on wages like Rosie’s means working two or three jobs, especially in a city like Sedona, which ranks among the nation’s top 20 most expensive places to live.
“They pay you just enough to live somewhere else,” said one restroom attendant. “The attitude is ‘Come here, clean up our mess, go to your next job, and then go back where you came from.’”
Longer hours, shorter benefits
Still, most Americans would agree that no one should have to toil more than 40 hours per week just to cover basic expenses. Not so for women like Rosie, who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are working more than 60 hours per week just to put food on the table. They comprise nearly 75 prcent of the low-wage work force, which has seen the sharpest drop in income in recent years.
Since workers like Rosie are toiling far more hours per week on average than ever before, one can only imagine how this may affect their general health. Unprecedented numbers of cases of acid reflux, depression, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, adrenal exhaustion, obesity, sexual dysfunction and other stress-related problems have been attributed to this increase in working hours, while prescriptions for Zoloft and other anti-anxiety medications have reached an all-time high. Just one look at the proliferation of TV commercials for pharmaceuticals addressing these ailments tells all.
According to The State of Working America 2004/2005, the hourly wage of non-supervisory service workers like Rosie (80 percent of the workforce) fell 1.2 percent over the past year, while the median family income fell more than 2.4 percent in 2003. Because the largest income declines occurred among the lowest income families (6 percent since 2003 and 1.9 percent since 2005), the share of the nation living in poverty increased to 12.5 percent in 2006, adding 1.3 million people to the poverty rolls.
In addition, the number of Americans without health insurance continues to rise dramatically by 18,000 per day, leaving more than 47 million citizens like Rosie without coverage.
While median incomes are sharply declining, the cost of goods and services continues to skyrocket. Although long regarded as a nation of affluence, the U.S. is fast becoming a Third World nation – hidden under the veneer of people driving Hummers and other luxury SUVs while living off their credit cards. The ad wasn’t kidding when it boasted: “For everything else there’s Master Card.” It meant basic needs, not just luxuries.
So where do workers like Rosie fit into a society that heralds home-run hitters and celebrities? Rosie has her dreams and hopes to become a dental hygienist one day. “Cleaning people’s mouths is a lot more appealing than cleaning their bathrooms,” she confessed.
Still, the hierarchal work culture places a social stigma on the job, failing to recognize the invaluable service that “invisible” workers like Rosie perform – without a living wage, without health care, without a life – rendering them akin to a leper colony.
“Folks don’t talk to us; they treat us like the homeless or invisible people,” Rosie said. “But I know they’re glad to see us in here – it guarantees them a clean toilet seat. What hurts the most is the lack of recognition for what we do and the public attitude toward our work.”
Sedona residents Laurie and Robert “Wing” Ryan couldn’t agree with Rosie more. The couple, who clean public and commercial places “by choice,” say they encounter condescending public attitudes toward their work similar to Rosie’s.
“I am very well-educated, but people still look down their noses at us,” Laurie said. “They’re cold to us. It’s subtle, but it’s there.”
Laurie also points out that janitorial workers are some of the most trusted in town since they’re often left alone in businesses late at night, surrounded by thousands of dollars of cash and inventory. Yet they don’t get recognition for that, she said.
“I actually enjoy making these places whole again,” Laurie said. “I like to turn around when I’m done and note that it looks good, smells good and feels good. We’re performing a much needed service that few are willing to do – why should people look down on that?”
“There’s nothing worse than coming into work and finding that somebody got sick all over one of the stalls,” Rosie said. Her remarkable resilience is evident as she enters a restroom that looks like it was hit by the recent tsunami. “I like to think that I’m fighting biological germ warfare,” she laughed. Humor, it seems, helps to overcome the nauseating sights she faces every day.
“We see the most disgusting things you can imagine,” she said. “We’re amazed by the constant unflushed toilets, plus the dirty diapers and garbage on the floor. It really won’t kill them to pull the handle or hold it down for a minute like most toilets require – their hand won’t fall off from the plague, ya know. Where’s their own self-respect? Do they live like this at home?”
Many area restroom attendants stated that facilities frequented by tourists pose some of their greatest cleaning challenges. Reports include urine all over the floor, especially in men’s rooms, along with vandalism and graffiti.
Urinals, it seems, are the worst, with workers constantly removing cigarettes, broken glass, straws and other trash to unclog them. According to Rosie, “they drop garbage right on the floor,” without bothering to put it in a container.
“Trash is left on the floor wherever they happened to be standing, just inches from the can,” echoed Wing. “I guess being on vacation means that they can make a mess.”
“The timeshares are awful,” Laurie added. “I’m shocked by some of the things I’ve seen.” These include sinks plugged up with vomit, rolls of toilet paper shoved down the john, walls wiped with what tissue never did and sinks left running to overflowing.
And they find hilarious sights too. The couple reports an increase in articles of clothing, mostly underwear, left behind in public bathroom stalls, especially in bars.
At one restaurant, the woman had to have left the place naked,” Wing said. “We found one shoe in the bathroom, her jeans near the front door and her underwear in the parking lot.”
Laurie notes the need for worker education and protection in their industry. “We run into every body fluid known to man,” she declared. “Any person who cleans should be certified in an HIV-AIDS Awareness Training certification program to prevent the spread of disease. It’s for their own protection.”
“We literally have to walk through the crap,” Wing said. “It’s hard work, but we bite the bullet. This is what we do.”
Do these workers have a message for the public-at-large?
“Please use trash cans, flush your toilet, and don’t use seat liners as bathroom tissue; they clog the toilets,” was the refrain. Attendants also said it would help if facilities could keep public restrooms properly supplied with toilet tissue throughout the day and provide workers with enough products to stock them up at night.
And, please flush!
Lives of perpetual motion
Theirs is a lonely job, performed mostly in the wee hours and void of merriment. They have a low level of social interaction and are often exposed to toxic contaminants, such as disinfecting solutions. Fast, repetitive movements of their hands and wrists make them prime candidates for carpal tunnel syndrome. Since they repeatedly bend, stretch, twist, lift and reach, they often suffer from chronic back problems.
They work part-time, including nights and weekends, standing and walking for long periods of time. Laurie and Wing haven’t had a single day off in two years.
“We need a living wage; we need health care,” Rosie said. “But above all, we need dignity. And we need full-time employment, just like any other American.”
If businesses operate on a for-profit basis, why shouldn’t their employees? Why are their lives focused on mere survival in an era when relatively few have pensions or health insurance? If workers now have to fend for themselves to maintain their well-being and fund their old age, it means they need higher wages to afford their own medical care and IRAs.
“All the financial experts urge us to save, invest and plan for our futures,” Rosie said. “But what about those of us faced with day-to-day survival – the choice between eating or paying a bill? What we need are tips for managing the crumbs that employers toss us. Right now, I’m headed for the outhouse in my old age.”
Such dearth of wages, such poverty in the supposed land of opportunity! Terrorism lies not in the streets of Baghdad but right here in the work stations of Sedona, in our fine dining rooms and immaculate restrooms, where there is desperation, devastation and destitution, where for many an hour’s net wage can’t even buy a Value Meal at McDonald’s.
America’s working poor, like galley slaves, are rowing furiously, getting nowhere all too slowly and spending their lives in perpetual motion between multiple minimum wage jobs while seemingly standing still.
Whenever you encounter these brave warriors of the loo, let them know that they’re doing one heck of a job. Pay ‘em a little homage. If united, America’s battalion of 2 million plunger-wielding, mop-pushing, Windex-squirting restroom cleaners would have more power than Janitor in a Drum to clean up the quagmire of their social stigma.
So here’s to Rosie and Laurie and “Wing” and all the restroom attendants of America: Keep on flushing proudly and don’t take crap from anyone!
EPILOGUE - FINDING SOLUTIONS
What kind of future can Rosie and her children look forward to?
While we can’t undo the pregnancies that trapped Rosie into low-wage jobs for lack of better education, we also can’t become so massively overeducated that there’s no one left to clean the bathrooms. One solution lies in teaching men and women about responsible, planned parenthood and in providing accessible birth control to teens – versus the ludicrous trend of advocating total abstinence. Perhaps Rosie could have had a somewhat better life is she had planned one or two fewer children based on her economic means.
Next, we need to cultivate greater respect for these workers and their tasks, instilling a sense of pride and accomplishment for their contributions to society. What if Rosie and America’s other 2.5 million janitors called in sick tomorrow? The result would be widespread chaos, akin to the biological warfare she jokes about.
But therein lies Rosie’s power: Society desperately needs her services.
The low-wage job force represents more than one-third of all American workers, mostly women, and the service industry remains the fastest growing job sector in the nation.
Discussions about the effects that living wage ordinances have had on cities, businesses and workers also need to be initiated, as well as revisiting the very definition of what constitutes a living wage. As both learn to listen to one another in a state of grace, answers will emerge from the quagmire.
Finally, we come to “SOUL-utions” – that is, in every challenge lies a spiritual problem and a spiritual solution. A cross-examination of societal values and ideals, as well as the lack of authentic spiritual foundations in our paradigms, will be required to address global challenges in the coming years – like spiritual bankruptcy, for one.
Encouraging children to identify their passions and explore a deeper sense of purpose will do more collectively to cure the unhappiness and unfulfillment that plagues today’s work force than all of the overpriced educational degrees combined. As youths strive to afford and achieve higher education, working folks in Yavapai County with advanced degrees find themselves on the unemployment line, competing with teens for minimum-wage jobs as retail clerks at big box stores.
Perhaps this American obsession with education that fails to guarantee decent employment in today’s job market is in need of deep question.
Encouraging more women to cross-examine assumed child-bearing roles also would do more to positively impact their financial lives than winning the lottery. And, finally, by replacing our Bigger is Better perception and by re-establishing a connection to our true Source, we can eliminate the poverty consciousness, alienation, fear and lack of trust that contribute to the degradation of workplace ethics and lack of worker respect across our planet.
Catherine Rourke is an award-winning professional journalist who specializes in socioeconomic, health care and work-life balance issues. This article represents part of a series that received a distinguished "Community Journalist of the Year" award in 2006.
COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE
Folks in town are talking about this story and looking at us with a new respect. Wow! Never thought we'd see the day when our crappy work would be "celebrated" in a newspaper! You have elevated our job to a fine art and for that we are forever grateful! Thank you for honoring us janitors and highlighting what we do and telling our story. Maybe we will get a little more respect now!
Laurie and Robert Ryan