OPINION: Our fight for equality and job security at the downtown St. Louis courthouse

SEIU Local 1

How would you feel if you have proudly served the public by keeping a state courthouse clean, and then suddenly lost your job – through no fault of your own – because the city contractor you worked for quit? That’s what may be happening to me and my coworkers.

And the judges who run the 22nd Judicial Circuit courthouse downtown have the power to stop it.

The judges should ensure that their next contractor retains currently serving workers. And the St. Louis Board of Alderman should pass legislation during its next session to ensure that other service workers never go through what my coworkers and I are going through now.

I’ve been a janitor for nearly a year and a half at the 22nd Judicial Circuit courthouse downtown, where I clean bathrooms and elevators and remove the trash. My fellow workers and I do the heavy and essential work that ensures the building is clean and safe for everyone who enters: the public, the employees, even the judges and their staff.

Many of my coworkers have disabilities, but we all do the same work, for which we are paid up to $19 per hour under the city’s Living Wage Ordinance, which provides minimum labor rights to workers on certain taxpayer-funded contracts.

However, our employer, Challenge Unlimited (Challenge), classifies my coworkers who have disabilities as “clients” – rather than employees – and denies them Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits. If I, as a person without a disability, lose my job, I am eligible for unemployment benefits. But Challenge says my co-workers with a disability can’t access those benefits despite the fact that we all perform the same services.

During the past year, we’ve organized several demonstrations to raise public awareness about this discrimination. We joined hands with disability rights advocates and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 and brought the discrimination to the attention of the Board of Alderman (BOA). On Feb. 2, the BOA unanimously approved Resolution 168 in support of equality for janitors at the court. Challenge reacted by serving notice that it will cease operations on April 3, approximately two months before its current contract is set to expire.

Unfortunately, this is not a rare scenario. Janitorial contracts routinely change hands, as often as every three to four years. This constant turnover puts the workers who’ve dedicated years of service at constant risk of losing their jobs, and denies the public their experience and knowledge, while setting the stage for potential disruption of operations.

This is happening right now at the courthouse. Following Challenge Unlimited’s decision to quit, and without any promise that our jobs are safe, several of my colleagues have already left to take other jobs. My coworkers with disabilities are facing even more difficult circumstances: if they lose their jobs, they could struggle to obtain UI benefits because Challenge has denied them access.

Many cities and states have passed worker retention policies to ensure that they can retain the workers’ valuable skills when their contractors change. Under these policies, everyone benefits:

  • The workers get job security, and don’t have to worry about losing their jobs through no fault of their own.
  • The government gets consistency, as jobs continue to be held by trained workers whose knowledge is not lost when contracts turn over.
  • The taxpayers get better value for the contracting dollar, because they are not paying for the unnecessary recruitment and retraining of a replacement workforce.

My coworkers and I don’t know if we’ll still have our jobs after the end of this month. But I’m hanging in this fight because I’m committed to ensuring the judges select a responsible contractor who will retain the experienced workforce.

We urge the judges to do the right thing, right now and choose a contractor who will retain the janitors and work with them to ensure that the job standards at the court are the highest in the city.

And we want the BOA to make sure that workers covered by the Living Wage Ordinance (LWO) don’t have to go through this again. The BOA will have an opportunity during the forthcoming session to follow up Resolution 168 with legislation that protects incumbent workers when a contract changes hands.

Requiring employers covered by the LWO to retain experienced, incumbent workers makes sense because it’s in the best interest of the court, our city, and working families.

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