“I really want people to understand that we all work just as hard as the next person that’s in a business suit,” says Tamika Maxwell, mother of three, describing her work as a janitor in Cincinnati, her hometown.
Along with 1,000 colleagues in the city, Maxwell hopes that current negotiations between SEIU and the city’s cleaning contractors will raise their $9.80 hourly wage—which, for annual full-time work, still leaves a family of three below the federal poverty line and relying on food stamps and Medicaid. In essence, the state ends up subsidizing corporations to continue paying people a non-living wage.
“My paycheck is the same amount as my Duke Energy bill,” says Maxwell. “And you know they don’t care—they will cut you off if you don’t have their money.”
Maxwell works part-time while also pursuing a business degree at Cincinnati State. She’s now employed by Scioto Services, which recently won the contract for the Public Defender’s office building that she has cleaned for four years. The company retained Maxwell but cut back all of the janitors’ hours. Instead of working the 5–10 pm shift five days per week, Maxwell now works only four.
“That’s a big deal when you’re only making $9.80 an hour,” she says.
But perhaps what is most frustrating to Maxwell and her colleagues is that among the cleaning contractors’ clients are some of the richest companies in the world. Macy’s, for example, made $1.25 billion in profits last year; Fifth Third Bancorp took in $1.3 billion; and Kroger netted more than $600 million. In all, thirteen Fortune 1000 companies with their corporate headquarters in Cincinnati earned combined profits of nearly $17 billion in 2011. If any of them told the cleaning contractors to pay a living wage, the contractors would do so, and would pass the additional cost onto the multibillion-dollar corporations.
Indeed, Procter & Gamble instructed its cleaning contractor, Compass, that the janitors who clean its headquarters should earn a living wage. Compass then offered the workers healthcare and guaranteed full-time hours, as well as an hourly wage increase of $0.30 in the first year, $0.25 in the second year, and $0.30 in the third year. That would result in a $10.65 hourly wage in 2015, and an average annual salary of $19,863 (just over the poverty line for a family of three). In contrast, the other contractors involved in negotiations with SEIU are offering next to nothing: a wage freeze for two years and a ten-cent increase in 2015.
“We just want to be paid fairly, and treated fairly. And the big businesses need to know that we have families that we want to take care of too,” says Maxwell. “I’m struggling right now, trying to figure out what I’m going to do for my kids’ Christmas. I know the big businesses aren’t worrying about their Christmas.”