Spurred by allegations of wage theft against the city's janitorial contractor, Palo Alto city leaders agreed on Monday to mandate union wages and collective-bargaining rights for workers who clean city facilities.
The City Council voted 6-1, with Greg Tanaka dissenting, to adopt new policies requiring that future janitorial contractors pay prevailing wage to their employees and ensuring that these workers are subject to a collective-bargaining agreement. The new rules will take effect later this year, when the city goes out to bid for a new janitorial contract.
Labor standards for janitors became a subject of growing concern last year when council members learned that the city's contractor, SWA Services Group, had not complied with a contractual requirement to grant its janitorial workers annual 3% raises. Last April, the city discussed the discrepancy with SWA, which denied violating the contract but agreed to raise compensation.
SWA, which has been providing janitorial services to Palo Alto since 2017, told the city that it had assumed the 3% raises in the contract, which pertained to labor, overhead, materials and supplies rather than just wages.
The issue surfaced after the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, a watchdog group that supports janitorial workers, conducted site visits, spoke to local janitors and learned about the pay disparity. It also worked with the janitorial workers to file a complaint with the state Labor Commissioner's Office and reach a settlement with SWA over owed wages.
On Monday, the council took a step to ensure future contracts offer additional protection for janitorial workers. Members supported a memo from Vice Mayor Greer Stone and council member Pat Burt to adopt policies requiring that janitors get at least a union wage and that their contract provides for collective bargaining.
Stone suggested that ensuring higher wages for janitorial workers would further the council's goal of allowing more employees to live near the city, which is prohibitively expensive for most workers in the janitorial industry. While building more affordable housing is the city's top goal in this arena, raising salaries for individuals who provide critical services also would help, he said.
"Most importantly, beyond the benefit to the city, it's simply the right thing to do," Stone said. "I think we should be paying people a fair and livable wage for the work they do and the sacrifice they make on behalf of the community."
In approving the new rules, Palo Alto is following the lead of Mountain View, which took a similar measure in 2020. Council member Ed Lauing supported the new provisions and called the proposal to grant more labor rights to janitors "a morality issue."
"I think we just need to be all in on that," Lauing said. "These are folks who are working for us to make us more successful as a city and they need to be more successful as well."
Workers also received a boost of support from state and federal representatives, with Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Sen. Josh Becker and Assembly member Marc Berman all sending the council letters in recent months urging them to adopt new rules for janitorial employees.
"Given the prevalence of reported exploitation in the janitorial industry, employers must be vigilant to ensure that janitors are treated fairly," Eshoo wrote in a September letter.
Since outsourcing its janitorial services and hiring SWA in 2017, the city has been spending about $2 million per year to have the contractor clean its local facilities. Public Works staff estimate that the new rules will likely increase the cost of labor for future contracts by about 40%.
The MCTF outlined the plight that janitors in California face last year in a report titled, "Janitors: The Pandemic's Unseen Essential Workers." The report described cases in which employers have engaged in wage theft, have failed to provide workers with personal protective equipment during the pandemic or have refused to grant employees days off even when they had experienced COVID-19 symptoms. The report concluded that the janitorial workforce in California "is characterized by low-wages, financial insecurity, and lack of access to health care."
"The pandemic has exacerbated these factors with increases in job loss and the reduction of wages," the report stated.
The organization applauded Palo Alto's efforts to firm up labor standards for this critical workforce. Yardenna Aaron, executive director of the MCTF, told the council on Jan. 23 that she hopes that with the new provisions, Palo Alto serves as an example for the entire Bay Area when it comes to fair contracting.
"Wage theft, breaking the ethics of contractual obligations, is not the tenor that we want for essential works," Aaron said. "We know that janitors are essential, the were literally the job classification responsible for stopping the spread of COVID, each time we stepped outside of our home."
The council also agreed that the new contract should include tiers that grant higher pay to custodians who clean some of the city's most difficult areas (including bathrooms in local parks and garages) and to those in specialized sectors that require special skills or a more extensive background checks, namely facilities in the Utilities and Police departments. Tanaka opposed the creation of these tiers and voted against the entire proposal.
All other council members agreed that strengthening the labor provisions in the janitorial contracts would benefit both the workers and the city at large. Mayor Lydia Kou suggested that having a stable and reliable workforce that ensures that areas like downtown garages are clean is critical to Palo Alto's economic recovery efforts.
"Having a city that is clean and is feeling safe and healthy is going to draw more people in rather than (have them) staying away," Kou said.
Council members Julie Lythcott-Haims and Vicki Veenker both said that supporting janitorial workers is a matter of equity. Veenker said the city should be "judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us." Lythcott-Haims suggested that it's particularly critical to assist workers who have proven to be not just vulnerable but essential.
"Ensuring that our janitorial workers here in the city of Palo Alto, who are more likely to be of color, more likely to be female, more likely to be immigrants, are compensated appropriately and are free from harassment and wage theft from their employer should be a top priority in a city that seeks to treat all humans equitably," Lythcott-Haims said.