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Trick or Treatment

Downtown janitors, whose current contract expires on Halloween, want affordable family health care to be a part of their future

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"There is no affordable health care for the janitors Downtown," says Tom Hoffman, spokesman for the janitors' union, Service Employees International Union -- at least not for their families.

 

SEIU Local 3 represents 750 people who clean "all of the major office buildings" Downtown, Hoffman explains: USX, PNC, the Gateways, the PPGs, Freemarkets and Centre City Tower (where City Paper's offices are housed), to name a few. Their contract is up on Halloween. On Oct. 16, about 500 janitors and sympathizers ringed Mellon One Building, "Holding on for health care," as Hoffman put it, in their next contract.

 

While health care for each janitor is paid for by his or her employer, family health care costs about $450 a month, Hoffman says. A janitor with three years' experience has risen to the top wage of $11.72 an hour over a 40-hour week, grossing $468 and taking home about $330. So family health benefits under the plan the janitors are now offered cost even the top earners almost a quarter of their gross income, or a third of their take-home pay, which makes it unaffordable.

 

For those with less time on the job, or who work in several of the newer Downtown buildings such as PNC Firstside and the new Mellon Service Center -- whose contracts stipulate a longer wait (seven years) to reach the highest wage -- the employees' contribution to family health insurance is proportionally even greater.

 

Thus, families often rely on the state-run CHIP program for their kids' insurance, Hoffman reports. "And that's hardly anything anybody can count on, what with all the budget cuts that are going on," he says. "When we look down the road a few years, we see [free] single coverage being in jeopardy."

 

SEIU is pushing for the employee contribution to family health care to be set at "something more on the order of $100 a month." The union is negotiating with Central Property Services, a subsidiary of Oxford Realty and the majority cleaner Downtown, and MOCA -- Managers, Owners and Contractors Association -- a consortium that represents the other Downtown janitorial employers. CPS did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

 

Hoffman was encouraged by the presence of about 100 community members and representatives from other labor groups at the janitors' latest protest. Hoffman believes the janitors' plight is seen as part of a national struggle.

 

"This is really not our fight," he says. "This is everyone's fight for health care."

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