Doing Downtown Pittsburgh's literal dirty work, janitors toil for low wages at tough jobs with little security because they aren't usually employed directly by the skyscrapers' owners and managers. Instead, the city's real-estate captains hire cleaning subcontractors, who, in turn, hire just enough workers to carry out their contracts. Should management decide to switch contractors, the janitors can be out of luck -- and out of work.
Pittsburgh City Councilor Doug Shields says a proposed "displaced worker protection" ordinance -- co-sponsored by all nine city councilors -- could help. Under the proposal, individual janitors would have 10 days to decide if they wish to work for any new contractor for at least the next 180 days. Janitors can still be fired for cause, and the ordinance doesn't require new contractors to maintain the janitors' old salary, benefits or hours.
"It serves no purpose to take an innocent party, a working person, who isn't making a lot of money and throw them out" when a building changes contractors, says Shields. "Turned unexpectedly out of work, they'll have to turn to the public's pot, to WIC [food stamps], energy assistance, public housing."
Such was the fate of nine Downtown cleaners in January 2003 when the management of Centre City Tower (which houses City Paper's offices) dropped their union cleaning contractor in favor of a non-union outfit that employed workers only part-time at lower wages. The changeover followed a new union contract that won affordable family health insurance for the first time.
Service Employees International Union, who represents the Centre City janitors and about 800 more Downtown, is lobbying council to pass the displaced-worker ordinance, which resembles laws in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. Says SEIU spokesman Tom Hoffman, "They can show their worth to the new contractor, or it gives them a chance to look for a new job."
SEIU fears other buildings might dump their union contractors, too, although so far that hasn't happened. With the Gateway Center complex recently sold to Hertz Investment Group of California, janitors there are worried.
Attorney John Cerilli, representing Downtown's Building Owners and Managers Association, questions the ordinance's legality, although BOMA hasn't committed to bringing suit should the ordinance pass.
"It's a bad thing for the City of Pittsburgh," says Cerilli. "It'd send a chilling message that they'll impose obligations on business. It's bad enough to attract businesses with the problems there are, without throwing one more thing on the pile."
Counters Doug Shields: "You want to blame the city's business troubles on the janitors?"
City council is expected to take a preliminary vote on the ordinance Nov. 24.