I. Roberto (ABCleaning)* was in his early twenties and friendly to the point of jovial. Everyone in our office knew his name. When there were leftovers from a catered lunch meeting, someone would make up a plate and save it for him. He went on Chipotle runs with the security guards, bought into our lottery pools, and promised to give me a million dollars if he struck it. He participated in our monthly potlucks; he was invited to the Christmas party.
He had been cleaning our building for over a year when my boss decided to look for a cheaper cleaning contract, and let him go. He walked all over the building handing out performance reviews and saying goodbye. "Don't cry for me," he told me. He doubled back a minute later with a follow-up: "Are you going to cry for me?" I thought he was going to cry. We all gave him 5's for "efficiency, work ethic and professionalism."
On his last day, ABCleaning took all the office cleaning supplies, including the soap and the janitorial pushcart.
II. Valeria (Corporate Janitorial) only worked for half of the first day. When she learned she couldn't smoke inside the building, she quit. Her boss, Carlos, came in to finish her shift.
III. Carlos (Corporate Janitorial) came in to clean in neatly pressed khakis, a crisp button-up shirt and a panama hat. He was always buzzing in and out to check on his workers and get a cup of coffee from our kitchen. He paid his employees $5.50 an hour ("That's below minimum wage," I told Maria, confused. "You're so smart that you knew that right away!" she said back).
IV. Maria (Corporate Janitorial) called him "Cheap Carlos" to his face. She was in her late seventies, tiny with an unfortunate spinal condition. Seeing an elderly, stooped woman wiping down kitchen counters made people uncomfortable. The PR liaison asked me if I'd seen the new cleaner, then pretended to hobble around with a cane, like we were playing charades. One word, three letters: old. "What is she, eighty?" an accountant asked me. "She shouldn't be doing that, at that age." One of the security guards forbade her from carrying mop buckets down the stairs, as if that wasn't a necessary part of her job.
Since ABCleaning had taken all the janitorial supplies and our company was too cheap to buy more, Maria had to carry armfuls of toilet paper rolls from floor to floor, and cut the hand soap with water. She asked me for help uploading an email attachment, but wasn't interested in learning how to do it herself. She asked me to print out directions to the closest DMV. She asked me for help finding low-income senior housing in the area.
She wore colorful scrubs to work, the kind you usually see in the pediatric ward, and she liked to flirt with the youngest security guard. "That red dress don't fit anymore," she told him one afternoon. He lent her quarters for bus money. The older security guard was soliciting complaints about her to take to HR.
By this time, my bosses were taking meetings with ABCleaning management. "Man, is it good to see you," the older guard said when ABCleaning walked into the lobby. Later, we learned that Roberto was no longer with them. The security guards stopped recording complaints against Maria.
On days the IT department made popcorn, Maria would stop by and tell us this was the best place she ever worked. One of the kitchen tables was designated "food up for grabs" and she wasn't shy about taking advantage. Once she filled so many cups with donut holes that my boss yelled at her and made her put them back, one at a time, with her hands.
She didn't come in to work one day. Or the day after that. Or the next week. Carlos said she wasn't answering her phone. She never came in again.
V. Ana (Corporate Janitorial) was called off the night shift to replace Maria. For several weeks, she would come in to work the day shift, go home for dinner, and return to work through the night. She was in her late twenties, and pretty. While she was cleaning the men's bathroom one day, an IT worker came in, unzipped his pants and used the urinal right in front of her. Security played back the tapes to see her rope off the room, hang a "Do Not Enter" sign, and push her cart inside the restroom. Three male employees walked by and deviated to the upstairs toilets. The fourth man didn't. A couple seconds after he entered the bathroom, Ana hurried out and ran to the elevator. A complaint was issued to HR. He told HR he had asked her permission to use the bathroom, and she'd said yes. He was not penalized.
Carlos was fired, but Ana was retained by ABCleaning.
VI. Ernesto (ABCleaning) is new this week. He's the sixth cleaner we've had in the last three months. The face behind the janitorial cart is always changing, but some things stay the same. They're all Hispanic. They're all low income. Some of them are undocumented. And after two weeks, they're gone. It's a precarious job, where you're invisible until something goes wrong, and then suddenly the boss is watching you and your time is numbered.
Our company is not doing well: I field calls about employee health insurance mysteriously disappearing; layoffs are not uncommon; and when it rains, the roof leaks. So corners are cut. One of these corners is the janitorial staff.
It seems there's always someone willing to work for cheaper.
*All names and companies have been changed