Do you know who cleans up after you?

Image by James P. Wells : borrowed from creative commons

Image by James P. Wells : borrowed from creative commons

This is an interesting biographical piece published in the NYT. As I write about the Dominican migrant experience in the United States, my thoughts center on many of the issues mentioned in the article since many of my informants make their living in the cleaning trades. Nevertheless, unlike the woman interviewed, those who have shared their work experiences with me have never mentioned belonging to a trade union. Some are US citizens or have work visas, others probably don’t; but I still wonder why the union issue has not come up. Maybe I’ll pursue this issue in the next round of fieldwork.

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July 20, 2009

After Murder of Office Cleaner, a New Light on an Isolated Job

When other workers in her office building are calling it a day, Elizabeth Magda is just beginning hers. She dumps out their wastebaskets, swipes a rag across their desks, dusts their computers and stocks their bathrooms with toilet paper and paper towels.

As the vast skyscraper empties out and a twilight desolation slowly descends on her floor, Ms. Magda finishes off her night by vacuuming a half acre of carpet, making sure to discard the pizza cartons of the few office workers who stay especially late. By midnight, she is usually the only person left on the floor, yet she does not feel isolated or lonesome, she said, because she knows she will soon be on her way home to Ridgewood, Queens.

“My personality is that I don’t need much people around me,” she said. “I don’t like a factory with a hundred people. It’s my job and I’m doing my job and I’m not thinking I’m lonely or somebody is coming in. You have to do your job.”

Few people pay attention to the workers who clean their offices, as long as the desks are clean in the morning and papers are not tampered with. But every once in a while, something happens to cast a spotlight on their relatively solitary, uncelebrated occupation. On July 11, there was a grisly discovery that did just that: the body of a cleaning woman was found stuffed in an air-conditioning duct in the Lower Manhattan office building where she had worked at night.

The victim, Eridania Rodriguez, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the early 1990s, was last seen four nights before. The police found her face down, her hands bound behind her back with black and yellow tape, still in her blue custodial uniform. An elevator operator, Joseph Pabon, 25, was arrested on Friday night and charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the killing of Ms. Rodriquez.

Ms. Magda, like Ms. Rodriguez, is an immigrant, though she came from Poland 13 years ago. She has a master’s degree in economics from the Krakow Academy of Economics (now the Krakow University of Economics) and taught high school math and physics. But after her husband lost his engineering job, the couple took advantage of an American immigration lottery and obtained green cards. Speaking no English when she arrived in 1996 and having to support her four children, she took random baby-sitting jobs until a friend who cleaned offices at 1155 Avenue of the Americas tipped her to an opening there.

“I was thinking of my kids’ education first — then maybe mine,” she said.

There is a slight note of embarrassment in her voice that she did not do more with her own education. But economically, at least, it may have been a sensible decision. As a member of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 26,000 cleaners in large commercial buildings in New York City, she earns $21 an hour, or around $45,000 a year, with health and pension benefits and a three-week annual vacation. It has allowed her to support her children, three through colleges like the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Hunter College; her youngest, Filip, 16, is still living at home and attending the selective Brooklyn Technical High School. (She separated from her husband in 2000.)

Ms. Magda is a slender, middle-aged woman with long brunet hair that grazes the sky-blue uniform her job requires. She is part of a cleaning force of 44 that, every weeknight, freshens all 40 floors of 1155, a glass and black-granite tower between 44th and 45th Streets owned by the Durst Organization; the tenant list includes the law firm of White & Case. Almost all the cleaners are women from either Eastern Europe or Central or South America, according to Patrick Mollin, operations manager for Durst.

From 5:15 p.m., when she changes into her uniform and starts her shift, until 12:45 a.m., Ms. Magda’s domain is the fourth floor, whose main occupant is O.K.!, the celebrity magazine. That is evident by the front-page posters of Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie that adorn the territory.

Her steady companion is her cart, which carries two ballooning plastic bags — one for trash, the other for recyclables — as well as scouring powder, Windex and a duster. As the light streaming through the broad windows steadily dims, she wheels the cart around, collecting garbage and wiping the scores of desks that honeycomb the floor. She makes sure not to disturb any papers left out on desktops.

That first phase of the job takes four hours and then she has a break for “lunch.” Hers is often fruit because, she said with a smile, “I take care of my weight.” It is the only time during the shift that she gets to chat with her co-workers. (She has learned a few words of Spanish and some of them have learned a few words of Polish.) Then she returns to the fourth floor and cleans the bathrooms. When there are almost no magazine workers around to disturb, she pushes and drags a vacuum cleaner until her shift nears its end. Then she turns off the lights, changes into street clothes and punches out.

She finds that the people whose offices she cleans are grateful — “friendly,” she said. “It’s like you belong in the building. Sometimes they say, ‘You’re working so hard.’ ” But in any case she is too busy to feel lonely, she repeated. Cleaning, she said, “is not a team job.”

“The hardest part of the job is night hours,” she said. It leaves “you tired after work.” While the murder of Ms. Rodriguez upset Ms. Magda, it did not especially sound an occupational alarm. “This is a safe job,” she said. “Security is very good. I feel comfortable.” Even other workers cannot get to her floor since keys are electronically programmed to admit workers only to the floors they clean.

Unlike most daytime workers, she goes to sleep as soon as she returns home. But during the day, she takes time to read and attend to things like dental appointments. Before leaving for work, she prepares dinner for her son, who often returns from school after she has begun her commute to work, navigating three subway lines. (On the slog home, there is also a shuttle bus, which lengthens the trip to an hour and a half or more.)

Sometimes, she said, she capitalizes on her economics training by dabbling in the stock market through an online broker. She has also taken a course in computers offered through the union. Over the three-day July 4 weekend, she and Filip treated themselves to a bus tour of Maine, including stops in Portland, Augusta and Acadia National Park.

She realizes that her choice to clean offices was a sacrifice she made so her children could thrive. She recalls that she got advice to do exactly that from a woman whose grandchild she baby-sat for.

“Elizabeth,” the woman told her, “first educate your kids and then there will be time for you.”

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The following video highlights some of the actions by Justice for Janitors, a campaign organized by the SEIU.

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