Esta página no está disponible en español.
THE HARTFORD COURANT
Climbing Toward Middle Class
December 26, 2004
Migdalia Rosario, veteran janitor at State House Square in downtown Hartford, speaks with pride and anxiety that her daughter is a freshman at the University of New Haven.
Hers isn't the usual worry of a college parent. The young lady just turned 18, which means she's about to be kicked out of state-financed health insurance, the HUSKY program. "I'm waiting for the letter," said Rosario, who has no medical insurance for herself.
Rosario's union contract allows her to buy coverage for herself, her college daughter and her ninth-grade son, who is also under HUSKY. But with all of her income added together - including her 30-hour-a-week cleaning job, at $10.55 an hour - how could she afford the $115 monthly premium?
No way. So the taxpayers have picked up the tab even though the 44-year-old Rosario is gainfully employed - a union steward, in fact.
Fortunately, that humilating headache is coming to an end for most of the nearly 2,000 unionized janitors in the Hartford area. Under a tentative contract with a group of seven cleaning contractors, members of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ - the commercial janitors - would receive health coverage for their spouses and children at no cost to them.
When it finally happens at the start of 2006, the benefit will mark the first-ever family health coverage for many of these janitors.
For others who currently buy the medical and dental insurance, it will free up hundreds of precious dollars each year.
This is not just another union victory at the bargaining table for the janitors, who scrub and sweep at the heart of the nationwide debate over sustainable wages and benefits. It's about who gets a shot at the middle class, or at least a shot at a stable life.
For all the talk about fairness in pay, working families are divided into two distinct camps: those with a spouse or parent whose job offers affordable health coverage for the entire family, and those without.
Those without this crucial benefit cannot even start to climb the rungs toward the middle class. The whole ladder is swaying in the wind.
Multiplied across the vast landscape of the working poor, the lack of affordable health insurance is not only frustrating and dangerous for them, but also economically inefficient for all of us and, in many cases, needless.
Rosario, who moved here from Puerto Rico 15 years ago, is shaky enough financially. Barely more than five feet tall, she's a grandmother of four - her oldest son is a Hartford cop - and she relies on the Hartford Hospital emergency room for medical visits. So far, they've been rare.
Weeks ago, she bought a radio for her son for Christmas, but his birthday came around and she ran out of money.
"He was waiting for something," she said through a union official translating at the local's Trumbull Street headquarters. "I had to give him the radio."
This past week, she had to wait until Thursday's paycheck before she could buy Christmas presents.
So the 75-cents-an-hour raise over three years will make a difference. The new contract also includes pension improvements and guarantees that some part-timers will gain more hours. The union has fought hard to move part-timers to full-time status over the years.
The yearlong delay in the family medical benefit leaves Rosario with a full year of worry for her daughter. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she said.
Still, it's a welcome step forward for a profession populated largely by non-English-speaking people at a time when low-income working families are not exactly basking in the economic recovery.
"It's clearly going in the right direction," said Kurt Westby, chairman of the Connecticut district for the 70,000-member Local 32BJ, which covers metropolitan New York. "This is a very welcome trend."
These are not folks who have grown to expect much from the corporate system whose filth they cart away. So it might seem like a Christmas present for them.
But it's not a gift. It's a well earned step that recognizes their value as a stable, responsible workforce.
Sure, building owners could scrape together nonunion cleaners at barely more than minimum wage. Hamilton Sundstrand did exactly that in 2000, when it replaced its union maintenance company. But what's the long-term cost? And what does that say about the value of the corporate system?
The Hartford-area janitors spent most of December preparing for a January walkout. They went as far as to divide up picket-line chores. Janitors in Fairfield and Westchester counties, as well as Long Island, are still without an agreement, and could strike next month when their current contract expires.
But the threat of a strike is not what drove the Hartford area maintenance contractors to settle favorably, their chief negotiator said.
"Those kinds of ultimatums never went back and forth across the table," said James B. Canavan, vice president of labor relations for UNICCO Service Co., which employs about a third of the Hartford-area union janitors.
Instead, said Canavan, spokesman for the seven companies in the Hartford talks, "We were trying to get into a good-faith bargaining agreement."
Employers will pay an average of $2.21 an hour per worker for medical benefits in 2006, Westby said, up from $1.79 in 2004. Canavan said the union helped by agreeing to some changes in the medical plans to make them less expensive.
The added medical benefits apply to all 30-hour-plus a week workers in the city and suburbs. About 300 part-timers in suburban buildings won't get the medical benefits, but will gain, for the first time, a prescription drug discount card.
These aren't jobs that can move to China. Still, the danger in stepping up benefits is that building owners, and ultimately their tenants, will balk at slightly higher prices and move toward cheaper, nonunion contractors.
Canavan and Westby said that's less likely in this area, especially downtown, where the unions hold most of the work.
That's good news for Rosario, as she looks to reduce her dependence on the state, and for others, such as downtown janitor Maria Munoz, who spends the money for health insurance for herself and her three children, ages 4, 9 and 15.
Munoz, a Peruvian native who receives significant support payments from separated husband, must leave her children with a neighbor until nearly 11 p.m. during her evening shifts. She hopes to find a second job when her youngest starts school, take intensive English classes, be able to pay bills on time and, eventually, buy a house.
"I know that I want to better myself," she said.
It seemed fitting that Munoz and Rosario spoke in the brick-walled conference room in a suite once occupied by Richard Gordon, a city developer and former Whalers hockey team owner - overlooking the massive construction project at the old Civic Center mall.