- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Mary Leach of Northwest celebrated a peculiar anniversary on Easter Monday. For 19 years, Mrs. Leach has donned rubber gloves each weekday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. to clean toilets, empty trash cans and dust the desks of powerful lawyers, lobbyists and politicians in plush office buildings downtown.At 65, Mrs. Leach says, “I don’t have anything else to do but try to make it.” And she does make it, just barely, with “my little part-time job.” That janitorial job not only helps pay her portion of the rent on the apartment she shares with her daughter, but it also buys her “a little food and a little medicine if I stretch it.” Obtaining affordable health care was the main reason why you could find Mrs. Leach among the members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 82, who were marching and rallying on May Day to call attention to their plea, “Health care for cleaners.” The union, which represents 7,000 janitors — 4,000 of whom work in commercial buildings — in the District, Baltimore and Montgomery County, threatened to strike as their contract expired Wednesday at midnight. They were hoping to negotiate a groundbreaking agreement that could mean the difference between life or death for members like Mrs. Leach.SEIU has been conducting a nationwide campaign called “Justice for Janitors” to get higher wages, increased working hours, sick pay and health care benefits for low-income workers.”Rising folks out of poverty, that’s what this is all about,” says Valarie Long, president of the local.In the District, the union is made up of 58 percent women, 93 percent of them Hispanic, 7 percent of them black. Forty-seven percent of them have children at home who are younger than 18.The impending strike is similar to a 24-day strike in Boston in October, where the union won concessions to get health care for its part-time workers.SEIU officials say wealthy developers and commercial building owners can afford to pay this pittance to janitors when the District is one of the hottest commercial real estate markets in the country. The average building rent is approximately $45 a square foot while the janitors are paid $8 an hour for four hours of work and receive no benefits.In Philadelphia, where rents run an average of $26 per square foot in buildings owned by the same firms that operate in the District, for example, janitors are provided with more full-time jobs, are paid benefits and earn between $11.96 and $12.82 an hour, based on SEIU figures.In the District, the cleaning services are contracted out and the union must negotiate with the service provider, not the building owner. But the union is putting pressure on owners and is seeking public sympathy for these working women and men, who not only need health care for themselves but for their children.”We need insurance,” said Mrs. Leach, who has “been under lots of contracts” through the years. One provided health care.Mrs. Leach receives a Social Security check for $367 each month. Like most part-time janitors, she earns approximately $160 a week. Her rent is $460 and she spends approximately $75 a month on medication, primarily to control her hypertension.”I try to hit the cheapest [store] for the generics,” she said.According to a survey conducted in December 2001 by the Commonwealth Fund, which bills itself as “a national, nonpartisan initiative to identify strategies to expand health insurance,” one in three uninsured adults report that they did not fill a prescription for medication because it was too costly, compared to 13 percent of insured patients.Ninety percent of SEIU members have incomes that make them eligible to enroll in the D.C. Health Care Alliance. But officials said that most low-wage, part-time workers only seek health care in crisis and “when they get sick, they rely on hospital emergency rooms, public health clinics and charity programs.”Ms. Long said the issues the union is fighting for reach beyond janitors to other low-skilled, low-wage earners.”This will help folks stabilize their lives so they don’t have to piece together two or three jobs to pay the rent and care for their families,” Ms. Long said.The union’s statistics indicate that 32 percent of their members work another job for 40 hours a week, while another 24 percent work another job for 20 to 30 hours a week. The income of 35 percent of their workers is below $15,000 annually.Still not ready to retire either her rubber gloves or her boxing gloves, Mrs. Leach said, “I’ve been fighting to get these things and health insurance for years, and if we don’t get it now, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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