The Twin Cities' large department stores get trampled by day, deep-scrubbed by night and invariably open, gleaming, to the public every morning. But according to the janitors whose job is to make these stores sparkle, many are getting paid only about $5 an hour with no overtime compensation.
Last week, a group of janitors working in Macy's and Herberger's stores in Minnesota filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court alleging numerous labor violations. These workers aren't employed by the stores -- rather, they work for cleaning companies on contract with Macy's and Herberger's.
Department stores naturally want their places cleaned on the cheap. But that forces cleaning companies to offer the lowest price possible, making the industry notorious for abusing its labor force, which consists of recent immigrants. According to the lawsuit, the system "allows unscrupulous subcontractors to compete for contracts by exploiting vulnerable workers."
The eight janitors signing on to the suit work for Capital Building Services Group, based in Lake Zurich, Ill. They claim Capital ignores travel time to and from stores and deducts meal breaks from timesheets even when employees skip meals.
They say some janitors have to buy their own cleaning supplies, which causes their overall pay to dip below minimum wage. The lawsuit also alleges that Capital doesn't always give employees paystubs, a labor law violation that makes it hard for workers to prove how much they worked and what they're owed.
Capital Building Services Group maintains that all workers are treated fairly and vows to fight the suit.
The janitors' lawyer, Adam Hansen of Nichols Kaster in Minneapolis, is seeking lost wages for all workers employed by Capital in the past three years. "This case is about respecting basic workplace protections," he says. "It is unfortunate that these types of unfair labor practices continue to happen in the retail cleaning industry."
But if Twin Cities department stores thought the matter would be settled quietly, they're out of luck. Fellow janitors supporting the Capital 8 have announced a June 9 strike at Target, Kohl's, Sears, and dozens of other chains.
Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a workers' rights advocacy group, hopes that putting pressure on the most recognizable names at the top of the chain world will force companies to rethink how they award cleaning contracts.
"I have worked for 14 years in the industry, and I only make $9 an hour," says Target janitor Jose Cabrera. "At this pay I am forced to work a second job. I don't have enough time to rest. I don't have time to spend with my family. We are standing up to end wage theft, and to win fair wages, fair benefits, and basic respect for janitors across the industry."
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