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Thursday, February 8, 2018
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

At my office, the janitorial people work by day. Being a prosecutorial law-enforcement office, we have a good number of professional staff; over one-third are attorneys. As to the investigative people with the guns, most of them have 4 year college degrees, and some have graduate degrees. There are a lot of suits and ties (or jackets and ties, in my case) for male staff, along with heels and dresses for women. There are plenty of desktop screens, laptops, smart phones, and — despite all the talk about “going paperless” — copying machines and red-rope file folders. And wandering amidst the busy office rows and cubicles with their sneakers and smocks and gloves and refuse carts and vacuum cleaners are the janitors, usually middle-aged Hispanic women.

For the most part, this arrangement works out. The cleaning people are very considerate, although sometimes they have to get in our way. Once in a while I grumble to myself if one of them wants to vacuum the rug in my office while I’m working on a complicated financial report. But usually I just get up and take a walk over to the water cooler, and in a few minutes they are somewhere else. Another moment of consternation occurs when the cleaners close off a mens or womens room for 20 minutes during mid-morning.

Overall, there is not a whole lot of personal interaction between “them and us”. Some of the clericals who are also Hispanic sometimes get into a chat with one of them in their native language. But for the most part, we exchange polite hellos, they do their jobs, we do our jobs, and the clock ticks until the work day ends for the night.

I had worked in a handful of other professional offices in the past, both private and governmental, and I don’t remember seeing cleaning staff during the day. You would need to stay late to see them (and once upon a time, I would occasionally work into the night in order to ‘forward my career’; ah, days of youth.) That got me to wondering about are the pros and cons of having your cleaners working while the sun is out and the mess is being made, and not having them come in at night when things are quiet. One theory is that most organizations don’t want to interrupt or distract their high-priced professionals and their clients for a maintenance function that can reasonably be done after-hours.

On the other hand, the cleaning workers might get a small premium in salary for working at night (e.g., $2 per hour difference between day porter and night porter jobs in Texas), so it could be a bit less expensive to have your offices cleaned by day. Another thought regards security — I know that 99% of cleaning people would not touch anything valuable that they might see on a desk, but there will always be that one percent that will. It is obviously harder to remove something from an occupied office than a vacant one. I would guess that there is also an “impress your client” factor — if you frequently bring customers or financiers or other big-wigs to your office, it might appear sort of “déclassé” to have rumpled cleaning people amidst the elegant hot-shot professionals. In an age of radical equality, you would think that such notions are dying off, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they still apply in a lot of businesses (especially in high-tech or fashion firms run by young entrepreneurs, where there is plenty of hypocrisy to balance out all of the liberal idealism).

Actually, I am starting to think that having cleaning people wander amidst a company’s urbane professionals during the work day is rather appropriate and desirable, from a social justice standpoint. We are living in a society where the already-rich and the highly educated wanna-be’s are getting richer, and the poor and under-skilled working families definitely aren’t. What’s even worse, we all are becoming more and more isolated. Many professionals today don’t have much occasion to rub elbows with the working class. We don’t shop in the same stores anymore (especially in an era when more and more purchases are made on-line, especially by the well-off); we don’t ride the same buses or subways; we sit in different sections of a sporting event; we don’t watch the same TV shows; we don’t go to the same churches; and we don’t send our kids to the same schools.

Seeing someone mop a floor or empty a waste basket makes you realize that struggling people, those who a hip young professional might occasionally hear about on NPR, really do exist not all that far from us. One nice little ritual that has evolved in my office is the annual Christmas holiday collection for the cleaning staff, which is taken up by the lawyers. I always chip in for it. They have a 20 minute presentation ceremony where an attorney will publicly thank the cleaners for what they do and hand them their cash envelopes, as to help with buying gifts for their kids. This once-a-year event hardly changes anything, but for at least a moment, a modern social and economic barrier comes down just a little.

I am not much of a radical in my old age, but still I can’t help but wonder if there should be a law requiring that most professional offices be cleaned during normal workday hours. Obviously there would need to be some exceptions, perhaps for critical medical facilities or government agencies dealing with sensitive information. But why shouldn’t Google and Goldman Sachs and the top law firms in Manhattan and Washington have a few cleaning ladies wandering around while the movers and shakers handle affairs that affect millions of lives and communities.

For now, I am thankful that my employer, in its quest to lower its costs and stay within its taxpayer-funded budget, does have such people among us. Quite unintentionally, my office is taking a small step to overcome the increasing isolation between the classes that is becoming worse and worse in the 21st Century (i.e., the “caste-ification” of America).

PS — But one counterpoint — perhaps evening work is a good option for many working class people, who want to be home during school hours to help tend to their children. And maybe the extra dollar or two for night work makes a difference to them. So, had I king-like powers and announced a law requiring professional offices to use cleaning staff during the normal daytime work hours, it might have backfired. I believed that I was helping the poor, but it might turn out that I was making things more difficult for many of them. That would not be the first time that a law intended to improve things for a downtrodden group actually made it worse.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:52 pm      

  1. Jim, My respect goes out to people who do the cleaning in large buildings, office buildings, etc. They work hard and are barely paid for their work. As you mention in your post, a lot of them do NOT speak English and some of them fall into the category of the “Dreamers”; then again, a lot of them are middle-aged Hispanic women, as you mention, here illegally and afraid of the ICE buses I’ve seen where I lived some years ago. They have a lot of work to get done in a short time and often are scammed in getting paid. All most every one of them is paid only when they work. So a day like today in the Chicago area where we are currently having about a foot of snow, many such workers are not pleased as they are not being paid; it’s simply too difficult to get to work. (Pictures of the roadways in Chgo had one car when it should be stop-and-go traffic. Many people are taking the day off, but people paid by day work are not pleased with such weather.)
    It used to be that those who cleaned buildings worked only at night; but now I agree with you that I’ve often seen workers who clean during the day in office buildings I’ve gone into but I have no clue as to the reason for that.
    I can see an advantage for some people to work during the day at cleaning as their children are in school, baby sitters are not required, and they may be able to be home to take care of children by the time school is out; taking care of children is another job that is not an easy job at all. I’ve done it and it requires 100% of one’s attention 100% of the time. If you (as in the person caring for the children) don’t hear kids when they are awake, you know they are doing something they are not supposed to be doing and you better run fast to see what’s going on. But I digress.
    Other people who work might prefer to work at night when the children are sleeping. It depends on the children and who is available to take care of the children when the person is working.
    I often think such people are not paid enuf no matter how much they are paid. Cleaning is hard work, long hours, and little pay.
    I tend to think that when it comes to such workers the consideration should be for THEM and not for the interrupting they might be doing to other people being paid much higher wages or salaries. And, yes, you are right: From a social justice standpoint the people cleaning buildings are the ones who definitely are in the 99%; the professionals you mention may not be in the 1%, but they are surely higher up than the 1% of those non-English-speaking cleaning people.
    Another such group my heart often goes out to is cab drivers. They work long, hard hours, dealing with “the public” (which is not easy) for a small amount of remuneration.
    Your mention of the collection taken at Christmas for the cleaning staff and where they live (as in “don’t ride the same buses, etc.) makes me aware of a relatively recent realization I’ve had lately: That realization was: When I was young (as in before I was say, twenty years old) my family lived in a German ghetto in Chicago. As I tho’t about living there, it suddenly dawned on me: We lived in a German ghetto ourselves. It took perhaps 50 or more years for me to realize that; to my family and me we simply lived where we lived and knew a lot of people who had family histories of immigrants from various areas of Germany. I’ve always felt very comfortable with the “blue collar” class, and now I realize why: I was raised in a German ghetto in Chicago myself, among just such hard working people.
    As to a law regarding when people should clean offices: I would say, “no law” as these people need some flexibility in when they can work to enable their families to survive; they have little else in the area of work to make life a bit easier for them. I’m almost sure they do not have health insurance, for instance. Let them work when they find it is most convenient for them to work – days or nights. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 9, 2018 @ 2:50 pm

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