Working as a janitor: Natalie

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Image: Natalie Guitead

In her three-year stint as a janitor, Natalie Guitead, 26, has worked at multiple locations in Ottawa. Noting that her current working conditions are better than at other places, she was inspired to join the Justice for Janitors Council -- SEIU Local 2's city-wide bargaining committee -- to fight for raising standards across the industry. Here are highlights from her conversation with rabble.  

Working multiple jobs

I work part time because I have a second job. I just work about 25 hours a week [as a janitor]. I work as an event-planner, and I also work as a nanny -- because I have a lot of break periods between events.

Preferred working arrangements

If I was to get full time for my job, I would of course take it. But full-time positions don't come often in my location. But the arrangement I have, it does work. I'm not looking to uproot myself and just go find another job that would give me full time. Just because the way my life is and how much my husband makes and right now we make more than enough to cover our bills between the two of us.

Thoughts on the job

I find it's a lot of work. It is a manual labor job. So it does take a lot out of you some days. But I find since I've worked in several locations, I find that this is the best one I've had, in terms of being a little bit more fair with the work that they give us. They don't expect you to move mountains in a few hours (laughs).

They actually understand what you're supposed to do. And I know not all locations are like that. But my current location is, which is one of the reasons why I joined the union's council because I wanted to have more places like mine.

Experience with the Justice for Janitors Council

I got to speak to lots of members over the phone and find out things that were very wrong in different cleaning companies. 

So I got to meet different [representatives from] different cleaning companies. And I got to learn that the standards that I may have in mine are not the same as at other companies. And, and it usually rings true that a lot of companies do not care about their employees, which is very sad.

Disparity in working conditions

It could be something as simple as just taking time off. Like, one of the new changes in our new contract was about bereavement leave. We added a paid day off for an aunt or uncle [passing away].

I know that if I had gone to my manager, I most likely would have gotten it. It may not have been paid, but I would have gotten it for sure. Whereas others, they would not even be approved for that day.

And then there's also just the amount of work that some companies may ask for, in a shorter amount of time. Cleaning has a very large scope. [It includes] everything from offices to hotels.

So you find that there are hotel workers who are just doing way too much work. 

It is a good thing that we have benefits that cover things like physiotherapists and chiropractors and things like that. But [the working conditions] are something that also needs to be looked at by these companies.

The other thing difference between my building and other buildings from my company or other companies, is that for our building, we have three people who work on one floor. So one will just take care of garbage, and dusting, one will just take care of washroom, and then one employee will vacuum and mop floors. Whereas I've worked in other locations where I've done [all tasks] for one entire floor -- as one employee.

The physical toll of the job

The motions are very repetitive. I'm always just bending down, picking up [as much as 50 pounds of paper] and then dumping into my bin. And I notice, like at the end of the week, that I feel it in my back, or I just like feel my arm is sore. And if it's a really bad day where there's a lot of heavy garbage. I just feel very exhausted.

Ways to improve the job

Most companies have a person who will go through your whole floor and they will estimate how much time it will take to clean it. They usually do that type of thing on a yearly basis.

Sometimes these experts will come back and say, these amount of floors should be done in four hours. When in reality, most employees might take four and a half hours, but they don't also think to say, if they've had a long day at work, or if the day before they had to lift like 50 pounds of paper. And they [base it in terms of cleaners] moving as fast as possible. 

If the experts can improve [their assessment], they can get back to the companies and make them realize, okay, this is how long they can do it if [cleaners] move at a reasonable pace. 

The pace of the job

One of the things they really could improve upon is making sure that everyone gets their break. I work five hours, and I believe I'm supposed to get a half-hour break. And the most I can even spare myself is about 15 minutes on a good day, five minutes if it's a bad day.

We're usually working by ourselves so there's no supervisor who's right behind you, which is also good that you don't have management right down your back.

But you realize, that, if I just take a minute for a quick break, it could put me so far behind because you don't know what's on your next floor. You don't know if your next floor had a party, or is throwing out lots of paper or boxes. Boxes are the worst. I'd take paper over boxes any day (laughs). 

The recently won pension plan

Personally, it isn't much. 

But hopefully they can improve on it on a later date, like for the next round of negotiations, or [structure] it in a way that employees can contribute more if we want. Because 1 per cent isn't much. If you make 30,000 a year, then that's only $300. That's $600 after it's matched by the employer. And after 10 years, it's [only] six grand. 

For someone like me, it can work if I just if I choose to stay in this company forever. Until I retire. But I personally know that's not going to be the case. But for most of my other colleagues who are in their 40s and 50s, this is it for them. This is where they're most likely going to stay until they retire.

And because in reality, you found a job that has a union, that has benefits -- most people when they have those things they don't want to leave.

Future plans

I've already gone to school for event management, and hospitality management. So I'm most likely looking to do something in that field. It's just because I don't see myself working [as a cleaner] for the next 25 years.

I've been doing this for three years now. And I feel it -- I feel the pain. I even take days off just so I can rest my back.

Zaid Noorsumar is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2019, and is a journalist who has previously contributed to CBC, The Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and Rankandfile.ca. To contact Zaid with story leads, email zaid[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Natalie Guitead

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