Denver’s janitors have a message to managers of the city’s largest office buildings: If they want companies to feel comfortable returning to their spaces, they need to take care of the people who clean them.
On Tuesday, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) circled the block around 1801 California Street, which is managed by Brookfield Properties. Protesters in cars blared horns and waved signs reading “queremos justicia” — we want justice — as a small group chanted similar slogans on the corner.
Juan Montaña, SEIU’s local property services director, said the COVID-19 pandemic has made janitorial services more essential than ever. His union is demanding healthcare, PPE, training for new cleaning products and higher wages. SEIU represents about 2,400 janitors who work in 800 or so buildings around the metro area, and most them are larger than 50,000 square feet. Montaña said at least 80 percent of the union’s janitors are Latina.
“As the country reopens, our janitors are cleaning every surface people touch at work,” he said. “They are making those spaces safe and stopping the spread of the disease.”
The crisis arrived at an auspicious moment. The union’s master contract, a framework agreement it re-negotiates every four years with each of its employers, expires in July. Montaña said SEIU is pushing for a special one-year extension to address specific concerns that have appeared with the novel coronavirus.
“This is a big year for us,” he said. “It is prime time for taking care of essential workers.”
The market for these jobs has become “unstable,” Montaña said. Some union members lost hours or were laid off as buildings closed due to stay-at-home orders. But businesses are beginning to return to their offices, and he said managers will need to work with SEIU if they want to earn their tenant’s trust.
Jennifer Menjivar said she’s worked as a janitor downtown for 11 years.
While she hadn’t heard that Latinos made up half of Denver’s COVID-19 cases, despite only accounting for a third of the population, she said she’s not surprised. People of color, she said, are the ones still leaving home to work.
“We have risked our health, we have risked our safety, we have risked our families,” she said in Spanish. “But we are still here downtown doing our job.”
Menjivar said she thinks employers recognize the tension between their need to keep buildings clean and the safety of workers like her.
“We are not asking. We are demanding for better protection,” she said. “We believe they will do the right thing.”
Brookfield Properties and the managers of several other large office spaces downtown did not immediately return a request for comment for this story.