Cleaning House

Treating workers like dirt


"One morning I came into my office early to get some work done," recalled a state representative recently. "I heard crying outside. Eventually I got up and opened the door. There sat one of the custodial workers, drenched in sweat and coughing body-racking coughs, and crying when she wasn't coughing. I asked her, 'Aren't you sick, don't you need to go to the doctor?'

    " 'I'm sick,' she said, but I can't go to the doctor. We don't get any benefits here, and I don't have any money. If I don't work, I don't get paid. I'm the only one in our household who has a job. My husband is disabled and in a wheelchair. If I don't work, we can't pay our bills.'

    "It struck me then: here we are a state with a $4 billion budget, able to give hundreds of millions of dollars to corporations for economic development, profess to want to make life better for all south Carolinians, but fail miserably at being concerned for the plight of those who work for us right here in this building.

    "This is not some Third World country where people who work for the government can't make a living wage. We are taking advantage of these people," said the representative, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing the custodian's job.

    The building he refers to is the Blatt building, where all 128 legislators have offices. The 126 custodians who keep the state office buildings in Columbia clean are not state employees; they work for minimum wage, and get no medical or retirement benefits.

    In 1981, to save money the Office of General Services privatized custodial work. The current contractor, Olsten Staffing Services, was the low bid in 1993.

    Olsten gets a percent for administrative overhead and profit over the cost of wages for the workers. General Services specifies that workers will be paid minimum wage, with a 15-cent hourly increase after six months as an "incentive."

    The woman crying outside the representative's door has cleaned offices for the state's legislators for nearly a decade. She still makes minimum wage.

    "I got a 15-cent raise once, but when they went to $4.75 an hour they took it away," she said. Her weekly take-home pay for 30 hours' work is about $110. "They don't want us to work more than 30 hours so they can call us part-time and don't have to pay any benefits."

    Although she's nearing 60, she has no retirement to look forward to. "I guess I just keep working as long as I can, though Lord knows it's getting hard. Every day after work my legs are so swollen up that I have to lie down."

    She gets up at 5 a.m. to take the bus to be at work by 7. She leaves at home her husband, who has lost his feet and fingers to "bad circulation," and a granddaughter with a two-year-old and another on the way. The granddaughter just finished a stint in the Job Corps and has applied for a job as a cook at Fort Jackson.

    More than the few miles between them separate the family from the comfortable state offices. The home has no air conditioning and little heat. "We got rats this big," said the granddaughter, holding hers hands two feet apart.

    During a recent visit to the home, the water had been off for almost a week. The landlord had taken months to fix a broken water pipe, and the city turned off the water when the bill got over $5,000. The woman worries about being evicted because the Columbia Housing Authority, which subsidizes her rent, makes keeping the utilities on a condition of residency.

    The work that goes on in the offices she cleans seems not to affect this woman's life, except to make it harder. Without a trace of irony, she adjusted her swollen legs on the bed and said, "Those Republicans are nasty; they spit tobacco all over their trash cans."


    "When you write the contract, I'll talk to you, otherwise, I'm not going to talk to you," was the owner of Olsten Staffing Service's response to questions about his contract to provide custodial services for state offices.

    Bill Aiken and his wife get 16.6 percent of the $2.5 million annual contract for "administrative overhead" and 3 percent in "profit." General Services employees handle most of the supervisory tasks (four of 14 supervisors are Olsten employees). Olsten is responsible for keeping the jobs filled, and hires "about five people a month," according to a supervisor.

    Most of the nearly half-million tax dollars Olsten takes home appears to be for writing biweekly paychecks and for replacing lost workers. That translates to about $300 a month for each worker for administrative overhead and profit. The workers, for their efforts, take home about $440 a month.

    None of the workers interviewed acknowledged ever getting a raise above minimum wage or recall Olsten advising them of their option to join the state employees' credit union.

    General Services' spokesperson Louise Majors said, "We have no way of knowing if the contractor is following the specific terms of the contract."

    Critics find most fault with the contract, not the contractor. The state put out a "low bid" contract with no provisions for the workers, and got what they asked for.

    Rep. Joe Neal (D-Richland) believes that this is an example of "transferring wealth from the many to the few" that can come with a badly crafted "privatizations" deal. He warns that the push to privatize poses a real threat to the largest work force in the state.

    More than 57,000 state employees, while they can not unionize, enjoy health and retirement benefits, and are protected from capricious firing by grievance procedures. This may sound like a good deal to a working person, but to potential contractors for state services it sounds like extra cost and hassles.

    Contracting out state work goes on at most state agencies. There are no requirements that the contractor provide any benefits, and few do.

    The recent unionization of kitchen workers at The Citadel poses an unanticipated problem for the privatization movement. The women who have run The Citadel kitchen for the past century were privatized more than 25 years ago. Last month, the workers voted 87 to 15 to join a union. The state fought the move, claiming that the women were state employees and, as such, couldn't unionize.

    The federal National Labor Relations Board disagreed, and supported the contract workers' right to organize.


    Reps. Neal and Gilda Cobb Hunter (D-Orangeburg) are crafting legislation that would require private companies that contract to do business with the state to provide benefits and a living wage. The issue isn't expected to come before the House until next session.

    Neal describes privatization as "not a goal but simply one method of achieving efficiency and economy. In the case of the custodial workers, they eliminated the benefits, reduced the salaries to below the poverty level and transferred the money to the private sector. That's not what privatization should be about."

    Examples of achieving savings and productivity, while retaining the benefits of a healthy and loyal force of state employees, are close at hand.

    Two years ago, the University of South Carolina was considering privatizing its custodial staff. "We hired a consultant to tell us how much it would cost to contract out our custodial work," said Jerry Schermerhorn of the school's Facilities Management. With those figures, USC "brought the workers into the decision, and we all decided that it was in the University's interest, as well as the workers, to compete with the private sector."

    As a result, USC keeps its more than 4 million square feet of space clean with about the same number of employees the state uses to take care of half that space. Of the 150 custodial workers, 120 of them have state employee benefits.

    "We work hard," said a USC custodian at the Carolina Plaza, "but they take care of us and we do a good job."

    The university's custodians make an average of $16,000 a year, plus benefits, for their 40 hours. Their colleagues in the government buildings across the street make a flat $7,410 for 30 hours.

    The university's decision to reward loyal workers is reflected in its less than 1 percent annual turnover, compared to Olsten's staff turnover of nearly 50 percent each year.

    "I think that any person who works should have benefits," said state Comptroller General Earl Morris. Morris, who serves on the Budget and Control Board that oversees General Services, said, "Privatization is fine, but if we privatize, we must insure that workers make enough for a decent living. I don't believe in saving money by taking it out of the hides of honest working people."

    While the legislature rants about family values and the virtues of the work ethic, the people who clean up after them keep their mouths shut and go about their business.

    "I like my job," said one worker at the Blatt building. "At my age, what am I going to do if I complain and get fired? There ain't much left of welfare."


© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 5/13/97