Silver Taube: Palo Alto janitorial workers shed light on wage theft
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Allegations of wage theft loom over Palo Alto as several janitors who clean the city’s facilities have filed at least $23,000 in wage claims, not including penalties.

The janitors filed claims with the Labor Commission against the city’s janitorial services vendor, SWA Services Group, a non-union company. These troubling allegations highlight the failure of one of the most expensive and affluent cities in California, full of wealthy venture capitalists and tech companies, to protect its essential, often forgotten janitorial workers in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic.

According to Maintenance Cooperation and Trust Fund (MCTF), a janitorial industry watchdog organization, seven of the city’s subcontracted janitors have filed claims alleging unpaid wages going as far back as 2018. The janitors allege SWA Services Group has failed to abide by wage requirements in its contract with Palo Alto—and that the janitors are getting paid below the wage standard Palo Alto requires in the contract.

MCTF monitors the janitorial industry for violations of the state’s Labor Code and has an extensive history of uncovering irresponsible behavior among janitorial contractors and their clients. This includes a major case involving the Cheesecake Factory, which was held liable for wage theft claims totaling $4.57 million.

In April 2021, MCTF released a detailed report highlighting challenges faced by janitors in California, often working in the shadows behind the scenes or late at night when buildings are empty. These janitors are often employed by subcontractors in “substandard conditions” in comparison to their non-subcontracted coworkers in the same building. The prevalence of non-union subcontractors exacerbates the problem.

Overall, the report showed janitors experience low-wages, minimal benefits and financial insecurity, which means even a few hundred dollars in unpaid wages could become a crisis for an individual.

MCTF has made repeated attempts to request Palo Alto conduct an audit of SWA Services Group based on complaints by SWA workers that it is not in compliance with its janitorial services contract. To date, Palo Alto has failed to communicate a willingness to conduct an audit or remedy the alleged wage theft.

Palo Alto had good intentions when it awarded a $10.6 million contract to SWA Services Group to perform janitorial services at city facilities in 2017. City staff recommended the adoption of evaluation criteria that rewarded effective performance solutions and staffing stability to address the issue of turnover and low-quality performance that resulted from the past practice of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. These performance issues arose from significantly low wage rates impacting recruitment and difficulty retaining staff.

City staff believed paying a higher wage and providing health care benefits would result in a more reliable workforce. However, in light of the recent wage theft allegations, the introduction of basic evaluation criteria in the award process may not have been enough to protect the city’s janitors.

This is not the first time SWA has been mired in labor woes. In Fremont, city janitors had a good union contract with fair wages and fully paid employer medical benefits that covered their families. In 2019, Fremont voted to replace its union janitorial vendor with non-union SWA. SWA immediately replaced the family medical plan with another plan so expensive the janitors could not afford to cover their families. Janitors went on strike for two days, and the janitorial union, SEIU-USWW, filed an unfair labor practice charge.

By contrast, in Mountain View, Palo Alto’s neighbor, janitors who worked for SWA Services Group at the time urged city officials to adopt standards that ensured they had access to affordable, quality health care, longer retention requirements and a voice at work. The Mountain View City Council responded by adopting contracting policies that increased standards and requirements for vendors bidding to perform janitorial services and enforce those standards. Palo Alto should follow Mountain View’s example.

On June 15, state Sen. Josh Becker wrote a letter urging Palo Alto to look into wage theft claims janitors recently filed against their employer, SWA, for contracted work performed for Palo Alto.

Becker noted property service industries tend to have track records of high turnover, poor quality of service and wage theft—and that these issues are particularly prevalent in the janitorial industry where exploitation, sexual harassment and violations of wage and hour laws are commonplace. He concludes by encouraging the city to find solutions to prevent these abuses and states it is critical for local governments to adopt a higher level of standards for these subcontracted services.

It’s unclear how or if Palo Alto plans to address these issues, but it looks as if the current contract with SWA is set to expire February 2023—which could mean the city has an opportunity to make the needed changes. Public tax dollars must be used to support responsible, high road janitorial contractors that follow the law and protect their essential workforce.

San José Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube is supervising attorney of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, supervising attorney of the Santa Clara County’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Legal Advice Line and a member of Santa Clara County’s Fair Workplace Collaborative. Her columns appear every second Thursday of the month. Contact her at [email protected].

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