In the first half of this year alone, janitors who clean the facilities of three major businesses in California were awarded millions in lost wages. Janitors who cleaned eight Cheesecake Factory restaurants in Orange and San Diego counties won $4.5 million in back wages. Janitors who cleaned a giant AT&T campus near LAX claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars in denied overtime pay. The state also is investigating unpaid wages owed to janitors who cleaned Superior grocery stores in Southern California.
In each of these three examples, my organization, the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, is a nonprofit that worked with janitors to understand their rights, identify violations, file the case and guide them through the investigation. Starting Oct. 1, janitors will have a new tool.
The state of California will enforce a new registry requirement to ensure janitorial companies follow the law.
Cutting corners in a service industry sometimes means workers get cheated of legal wages, are exposed to unsafe working conditions and are not provided with worker compensation benefits. Extremely low bids from contractors who cut corners make it nearly impossible for law-abiding janitorial contractors to compete.
For nearly 20 years, the MCTF has served as a watchdog for the janitorial industry. We have won more than $70 million in unpaid wages. This high number represents unfair competition for companies that pay the minimum wage, provide overtime pay and carry workers compensation insurance, which is only the bare minimum for any business owner.
Going forward, building owners and managers will be held responsible for janitors who clean their premises and every janitorial contractor must be registered with the Labor Commissioner’s Office. If a contractor is unregistered while under contract with a client company, that client company can be fined up to $25,000.
In order to register, janitorial contractors in California must demonstrate that their business is in good legal standing and disclose ownership information as well as an accounting of unpaid debts and current legal wage disputes.
This isn’t the only way building owners and managers are held liable now. Under another new law, the master company, like the Cheesecake Factory, is on the hook for unpaid wages, too. They can’t hide behind a franchisee or subcontractor anymore.
This comprehensive statewide approach is critically necessary to regain a lawful order for 57,000 janitors and hundreds of responsible employers who are being undercut.
While we have successfully worked in collaboration with contracted janitors, law-abiding janitorial contractors, and government agencies to expose unlawful activity and end unfair and illegal business practices in the janitorial industry, our approach has been insufficient.
In my experience working in the janitorial industry, as many as 50 percent of janitorial contractors that the MCTF encounters operate underground. Those at the top often don’t even know that their contractors are violating basic laws.
I finally see a pathway to changing the industry for the better in California. The state is cracking down on companies that contract with fly-by-night janitorial contractors and we are seeing that companies will be held jointly liable and fined if their janitorial contractors do not pay at minimum legally mandated wages.
Of course, good actors exist, too. We work with janitorial contractors that do follow the law. They will tell you that it does not cost much more to operate above board, and you will never have to pay fines.
These new regulations will level the playing field for upstanding janitorial contractors and give commercial property owners and managers the tools to make the right decisions about contracting.
Lilia Garcia-Brower is the executive director of the Los Angeles-based Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund.
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