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Fighting to make sure janitors get a fair wage

Fighting to make sure janitors get a fair wage
Lilia Garcia-Brower, executive director of Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF), at her home in Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Lilia Garcia-Brower, 45, is executive director of the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund. The Los Angeles- based organization investigates wage theft and other abuses in the janitorial industry, which is notorious for paying workers below minimum wage.

The organization, funded by unionized janitorial companies, partners with government enforcement agencies or organizes private lawsuits to bring cases. It has helped collect more than $30 million in unpaid wages owed to thousands of janitors since its founding in 1999.

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Building a case

Cases often start with a tip from an employer that lost a cleaning contract and suspects it was because the winning bidder doesn’t pay minimum wage or taxes or doesn’t carry worker’s compensation insurance. Cases also begin with Garcia-Brower’s ground troops of 10 field investigators — all former janitors. They conduct weekly “blitzes,” showing up unannounced to conduct interviews with workers. Garcia-Brower estimates they hit 100 buildings a week.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, getting into buildings was easy. Many were unlocked at night while workers were cleaning. After 9/11, things got harder.

“Buildings started to get locked,” Garcia-Brower said, declining to say how her organization gets around that. “I can’t share all our secrets, but we are creative.”

Knowledgeable investigators

Garcia-Brower said all of her field investigators are former janitors for a reason.

“We are talking to people … who are very desperate for their economic means and we are asking them to expose how their bosses cheat them,” she said.

“Who are you going to believe? A college kid who has never used a broom outside of their house or a person who understands [and can say] ‘I was a janitor for 15 years. I was unpaid, too. I had to fight to defend my rights.’”

Garcia-Brower said that experience is a big reason her investigators can build cases government agencies never could. Among MCTF’s biggest accomplishments was a class-action lawsuit that Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons settled for $22.4 million in 2004.

“We are an organization built by janitors — that is the strongest piece of our expertise,” Garcia-Brower said.

A problematic business model

The janitorial industry is full of fly-by-night contractors and subcontractors who pay employees a flat cash rate that works out to less than the hourly minimum wage, Garcia-Brower said. But the problem starts at the top. Many building owners or retailers, determined to cut costs, demand contracts at a rate that makes it impossible for a janitorial company to pay minimum wage, taxes and worker’s compensation, Garcia-Brower said.

MCTF and state agencies go after those janitorial contractors and win back wages, but often the companies don’t have the money to pay up. Garcia-Brower said the law has made it hard to hold responsible the building owners and retailers who either hire the janitorial companies or hire contractors who subcontract out the work. That's made cases like the 2004 supermarket settlement rare.

“We won maybe upwards of $70 million, but we only collect about 50% of it,” Garcia-Brower said.

But that could be changing. In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill, promoted by Garcia-Brower and others, that makes it far easier to hold building owners and retailers accountable if their contractors or subcontractors don’t follow employment regulations. She’s already noticing a change.

“Now I have building owners and property managers calling me back,” she said. “These statutes are demonstrating that we are a force that has to be reckoned with.”

The new law, Garcia-Brower said, will not only help workers but also janitorial companies that lose contracts to bad actors.

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“It’s not just about exploited janitors,” she said. “We advocate for the responsible businessperson."

“It’s not just about exploited janitors. We advocate for the responsible businessperson.”


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Fighting for more than just wages

In recent years, MCTF has also joined the battle against sexual assault and harassment on the job.

Garcia-Brower says the problem is rampant in an industry where most supervisors are men and many janitors are immigrant women who work at night in vacant buildings and fear retaliation if they complain or who don’t understand their rights.

To help, Garcia-Brower and MCTF have teamed with the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault to offer classes to teach female janitors how to defend themselves. And she lobbied for a new state law that, starting next year, will require employers to conduct sexual violence and harassment prevention training.

Garcia-Brower also works with the East Los Angeles Women’s Center to offer classes that she says help women understand how — from the time they were very little — society has worked to pigeonhole what their behavior and role in the world should be.

Getting started

Garcia-Brower didn’t plan to enter the world of worksite investigations. Instead, she wanted to be a teacher.

That’s because when she was growing up, her teachers gave up on her because she wasn’t a great student, even though she worked hard, Garcia-Brower said. She didn’t want others to have the same experience.

But in 2000, while she was working as a college counselor for high schools in South L.A. and studying for her master’s in Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, a friend urged her to interview for a position at MCTF, which was just getting off the ground.

She got the job but gave only a yearlong commitment. She thought she’d use the opportunity as an experience to make herself a better teacher.

She’s stayed for 18 years, saying the job “came alive in me.”

A foundation for success

Garcia-Brower’s parents emigrated from Mexico and worked hard so their five children “always had what we needed,” Garcia-Brower said.

Growing up in East L.A., she saw her father work three jobs at the same time, including as an auto mechanic. Her mother worked for a while in the garment industry, where her paycheck was sometimes delayed if the designer didn’t pay her boss.

Her parents sought to instill the importance of hard work. Garcia-Brower recalls helping her father on Saturday mornings in the mechanic’s shop. Other times, he “would wake us all up” to paint the walls of a home he owned and rented out.

“I respect hard work and I realize it is very much a part of where I come from and why I have the opportunities that I have,” she said.

Building a life

Garcia-Brower said she has tried to follow an example set by her wife, Kelley, who grew up more comfortably on the East Coast

Garcia-Brower was intrigued by the bond Kelley had with her son, who was 12 when the couple met. That relationship was full of laughter and was more of a “peer-to-peer” relationship than she had with her parents, who were always working.

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As a result, Garcia-Brower said, she’s worked to build such a relationship with her parents and decided she wanted a child. Today, her 7-year-old daughter pushes her to have a better work-life balance. And Garcia-Brower said she wants to ensure more workers have solid enough jobs so they can have similar relationships.

“When you have economic stability,” she said, “it’s amazing how much room you have.”

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