- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2020

Thousands of janitors in the D.C. area have been laid off during the coronavirus pandemic, even those who clean commercial properties that are collecting most of their rent payments, according to the largest union for property service workers.

Contracted janitors at about half of the 600 commercial properties in the District, Maryland and Virginia have lost their jobs, even though the “overwhelming majority” of tenants have been paying rent during the pandemic, says the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ (SEIU 32BJ).

“Not only are they losing their jobs, but they are running the risk of losing their health care,” said Jaime Contreras, SEIU 32BJ vice president for the District, Maryland and Virginia. “These workers are considered essential workers, and they have to report to work.

“Not only are they exposing themselves every day to maintain our buildings, keep our offices sanitized, but they are also putting their families and their entire communities at risk.”

About 30,000 cleaning workers who are union members have lost their jobs across the nation. Of those, more than 3,100 are from the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Annandale resident Sara Nataly Ramirez Lopez said she worked as a day shift janitor for Red Coats at an office owned by Carr Properties for a year and a half. She was laid off in mid-April when the building owners reportedly stopped paying the cleaning contractors, who then had to cut staff.

The 29-year-old single mother said she has no money left in savings and she barely made enough at her job to cover monthly expenses.

“It was not fair that they placed me on layoff because we are putting our health and that of our family at risk and we are even putting our lives at risk and they do not value that. We are helping with this pandemic by keeping the buildings disinfected and clean so that the virus does not spread and that more people are not infected,” Ms. Lopez told The Washington Times this week.

Carr Properties reportedly collected 98% of its rent in April, but 42% of the cleaning staff were laid off, which the company attributed to resident vacancies, according to the union.

Jackson Prentice, senior vice president of portfolio management for Carr Properties, declined to comment on the percentage of rent the company collected in April.

“Similar to many owners within the region, the reductions were related to decreased building occupancies and the immediate necessity to shift from staff to COVID response related expenses across the portfolio. We have no further comment at this time,” Mr. Prentice said.

After losing her job, Ms. Lopez applied for unemployment, but noted the process took a long time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just two weeks ago, she received her first unemployment check.

Layoffs for contracted janitorial workers at top owners’ buildings ranged from no layoffs to around 20% in the D.C. area, the 32BJ SEIU found.

However, representatives at one of the commercial properties, who agreed to speak on background, said their business did not technically employ the janitors, who were hired via third-party companies; therefore, the company is not responsible for the layoffs.

Unlike Ms. Lopez, Vanessa Correa, a 50-year-old mother of three kids who lost her job as a part-time cleaner at CRS Facility Services in the District, has been unable to receive unemployment.

“I feel depressed because I don’t have any income to pay for my bills, including my car payment, electricity bill, or sending money to support my father and brother in El Salvador,” Ms. Correa said. “I have a second job and I have some savings, but the savings won’t help me with ends meet in a few months.”

She said the company explained to her that the layoff was due to COVID-19 and that the floor was vacant.

About 14% of janitors in the D.C. area have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, data from 32BJ SEIU shows. The union also has reported a large percentage of cleaning staff layoffs in other metropolitan areas, including 19% in Boston and its suburbs and 29% in the New York City area.

According to Mr. Contreras, about 130 union members have died from COVID-19, including 13 in the D.C. area, but thousands of janitors have fallen ill and recovered.

In March, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Montgomery County Executive Mark Elrich, Arlington County Board member Katie Cristol and Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott urged building owners not to lay off or cut benefits to cleaning staff.

“The work they do every day is invaluable and now more than ever, their hard work can literally save lives. These men and women are the unsung heroes of the coronavirus pandemic and they can least afford to lose wages and benefits during this crisis,” they said in a statement. “At the same time that cleaners and security officers have stepped forward to do their jobs during this outbreak, they are now being threatened with layoffs and reductions.”

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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