Members of SEIU Local 49 joined Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers and community activists in a demonstration outside Umpqua Bank Plaza on August 25. Hundreds participated in the rally, which was the latest in a series of efforts to urge the Chicago-based property owner, Zeller Realty Group, to reverse its consequential decision to replace a union janitorial company with a low-road contractor.
Zeller Realty Group entered the Portland real estate market with its purchase of Umpqua Bank Plaza in January, 2017. After seven months, Zeller replaced their janitorial contractor with National Maintenance Contractors, a company with a documented history of employment‐related problems. The decision resulted in the loss of seven living‐wage jobs that offered janitors affordable healthcare and a voice on the job.
Maria Jimenez, an SEIU Local 49 janitor, worked in Umpqua Bank Plaza for over nine years. She recently had a baby and was able to take advantage of affordable healthcare and short-term disability benefits through her union employer. In her previous nonunion work, she had to pay thousands out of pocket for the birth of her older child and return to work after only a couple of weeks. With the recent switch, Maria is no longer at the building.
“I’m lucky that I was able to find another job with fair wages and benefits,” said Maria, “but the workers who replaced me here don’t have those same guarantees.”
National Maintenance Contractors has a history of paying low wages and misclassifying workers, which means workers do not have access to basic benefits like worker’s compensation. The company has also faced multiple legal challenges regarding its contested relationship with its cleaners, and in 2003 settled a lawsuit brought by janitors who accused the business of deceptive practices.
“This maneuver to a low‐road contractor is an affront to the standards Portland‐area service workers have worked so hard to raise,” said Maggie Long, executive director of SEIU Local 49. “Building tenants have also reached out to Zeller to ask them to hire a responsible contractor, but they refused to listen.”
Low‐cost service providers with poor wages and benefits can be detrimental to building tenants and visitors. Lower standards lead to higher employee turnover, which translates into inconsistent cleaning quality, and diminished safety and security due to new workers cycling through the building. Also, low‐road contracting decisions often generate negative press and expose companies to increased workplace hazards, risks, and legal liability.
“We’re seeing this time and time again, and people have had enough,” said Tracy Johnson, registration representative at Sunnybrook Medical Center in Clackamas. “Companies like Zeller Realty come to our area and invest in property, but they don’t invest in communities. And it’s in our community’s best interest to keep good jobs in our city so families can continue living here.”