When the first lady and second lady welcome Britain’s Prince Harry to a northern Virginia military base Wednesday, they may want to tell him to avoid the bathroom. Sixty-six janitors at the U.S. Army’s Fort Belvoir went on strike Tuesday after saying their contractor illegally cut working hours.
The dispute highlights the plight of service workers at government contractors -- the focus of a number of recent Obama executive orders aimed at improving labor conditions.
Earlier this month, workers said, managers cut the daily workload for the more than 70 full-time janitors at the base from eight hours to seven. Then last week, employees say, managers called a mandatory meeting and further slashed hours to five a day. It was a “total surprise,” said Eriana Ramirez, 45, a janitor who has worked at Fort Belvoir for four years.
“It’s really sad and now I’m worried about paying the bills,” said Maria Aleman, 45, a single mom with three children and seven years' experience on the cleaning staff. She says her monthly rent in the expensive Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, is $1,300.
Multiple calls to the contracting company, Tri-Management Solutions, were not returned. Media officials at the base did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Workers said the workload hasn’t changed at all, forcing them to accomplish just as much as they used to in less time. Aleman, for instance, said she still cleans six floors a day. She and others gathered outside the White House Tuesday to protest.
Compared with the country’s other 2.1 million janitors, the workers at Fort Belvoir earn relatively high pay: Aleman and Ramirez both say they make $16.40 an hour -- about $5 an hour more than the profession’s median pay rate and about $1 more than the average for janitors at federal buildings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
They’re also represented by a union -- a local of the Service Employees International Union. Earlier this month, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, the independent federal agency that oversees most private sector labor relations, accusing Tri-Management of violating its contractual obligation to bargain with the union.
“This is a really unscrupulous employer who doesn’t care about workers,” said Jaime Contreras, president of the District of Columbia-area division of the janitors’ union local, which wants the company to return to its full-time 40 hour work week. “And it’s irresponsibility on the part of the federal government for bringing in people like this.”
Tri-Management took over the cleaning contract in September, but it’s not the first labor dispute at the base: Janitors also went on strike against a previous contractor in 2013 and 2014 over wage and contract disputes. Last summer, after the Labor Department found violations, the former contractor agreed to give workers $300,000 in back pay.
Contreras said the abuses highlight the significance of one of the administration’s recently proposed executive orders. The measure, which has not yet taken effect, would require prospective contractors to disclose labor law violations from the past three years before they can win a federal contract and encourage agencies to avoid doing business with repeat offenders.
“The order needs to be implemented so that workers don’t go through abuses like the ones here,” Contreras says. “If it’s happening here, imagine what’s happening in places where workers don’t have a voice on the job.”
When the proposed rules underwent a public comment period earlier this summer, Republicans and business groups slammed them as overreaching and unnecessary. Congressional Republicans called the plan a “blacklisting regulation.”