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Janitors are essential workers. And they should be treated that way.

Abel Hernandez cleaned office buildings in Portland all through the pandemic. Now he and his fellow janitors seek the respect they deserve.

Abel Hernandez is a janitor who works downtown. During the past year, he has continued to show up at his office building to clean and sanitize to help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus. He plays an important and risky role in keeping our community safe, and it has been a long, hard, and scary year on the front lines of the pandemic.

“We came to work every day during the pandemic,” says Hernandez. “There were times I was nervous for me and my family and the risk of COVID. Even at times during the summer, when downtown felt like a dangerous place to be, me and my coworkers were proud of the work we do keeping offices clean.”

As office tenants begin to return downtown, Abel and nearly 2,000 other janitors, members of Service Employees International Union Local 49, are bargaining over the work protections, pay, and benefits they need to stay on the job. The outcome of that fight might determine whether janitors remain on the job, just as buildings begin to reopen and tenants come back, a first step in seeing our economy improve.

Janitors, who come from mostly Black, Brown, and immigrant communities, work in some of greater Portland’s most high-profile office buildings, including the City of Portland, Multnomah County, Portland State University and some of Oregon’s most prominent businesses like Nike, Intel and Adidas. Janitors are key to our recovery from the pandemic and crucial to building back the economy, especially for our communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

They, along with nearly 40,000 janitors throughout the West, are currently bargaining a contract that will determine their wages, health care, and on-the-job protections for the next three years.

“We are asking that companies Respect Us, Protect Us and Pay Us,” stresses Hernandez, “We are essential, resilient, empowered and skilled workers, and we cannot afford to be left behind as our communities rebuild after COVID.”

The majority of downtown office buildings use union janitorial contractors to clean and sanitize offices and public spaces, and that investment has paid off. Union janitors have fared far better than nonunion janitors during the pandemic. Nonunion janitors reported working with no PPE, little to no training, and no access to affordable health care to take care of themselves or their family members if they are ill.

Janitors are calling on Portland and Oregon’s largest businesses to continue to invest in union contractors—and invest in the training, pay and protections needed for our post-pandemic reality. They are calling on those who do not currently use a union janitorial company to do the right thing, and invest in a union company, where workers have basic on-the-job protections and access to critical benefits, like adequate sick time and affordable health care.

The janitors’ contract is set to expire on July 31, 2021. By making sure that janitors are respected, protected and paid, employers are investing in our communities. And with reopening on the horizon, it’s time to invest in the most important resource we have—the dedicated janitors who have risked their lives during the pandemic to keep our community safe.

For more information on this campaign, please visit www.raiseamericapdx.org

This article was paid for by SEIU 49.