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U of M research offers rare look at the lives of janitors

Since 2018, as part of a contract agreement between a host of cleaning companies and the SEIU, the University of Minnesota has published a series of studies that say janitors face worrying rates of injury, as well as sleep issues that increase their chances of getting hurt.

SEIU strikers
In the 2016 bargaining talks between SEIU and cleaning companies that led to the U’s research, the two sides negotiated a 12.3 percent raise for janitors over four years, pushing salaries of full-time workers above $15 an hour.
MinnPost file photo by Courtney Perry

Elia Starkweather had trouble sleeping after working night shifts as a janitor in downtown Minneapolis for seven years. She would take out the garbage at roughly 1,000 cubicles, vacuum extensively, clean bathrooms, microwaves, break rooms and more. Her heart would pound after eight hours of cleaning, and winding down to sleep was difficult.

“Every night I started with a lot of energy but when I get home I am not be able to sleep right away because I was so tired,” Starkweather, 43, said. “My body was exhausted.”

New research shows Starkweather is hardly alone. Since 2018, the University of Minnesota has published a series of studies about janitors that say workers face worrying rates of injury, as well as sleep issues that increase the chances of getting hurt. The research has also found that many in the profession don’t know how to report those injuries to file for workers’ compensation.

Hyun Kim, a professor at the U who worked on the SEIU studies, said the research was meant to learn basic information about workload in for janitors in Minnesota and can help direct future research on how to reduce injuries. Overall, one study concludes: “The rate of injury was of particular concern, indicating the magnitude of the injury problem in this population.”

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What the research says

Janitors are infrequently studied in the U.S. But the research was a unique part of a contract agreement in 2016 between a host of cleaning companies and the Service Employees International Union Local No. 26. The union is now promoting the research to strengthen its hand during another round of collective bargaining that is currently underway.

The U’s findings primarily come from surveying SEIU members. The Local 26 union includes about 4,500 janitors that clean commercial offices in the Twin Cities Metro area.

While SEIU played a large role in distributing the surveys and responding to them, Kim said the studies were paid for through federal grant money and completed independently of the union.

In one of the papers, 34 percent of 390 janitors reported having at least one work-related injury within six months or a year of the survey — and 16 percent of those reporting injuries said they were admitted to a hospital. More than a quarter of the janitors said they missed work days because of an injury. The most common cause of injury was overexertion and repetitive motion.

Janitors who worked the night shift reported more injuries than the ones who worked in the mornings. The study says there was an increased risk of injury among janitors who are women or Hispanic. The survey also included an assessment of mental health, and found the risk of injury was 1.9 times higher for those who reported doctor-diagnosed depression.

Another article published by the U says SEIU janitors with harder tasks — such as lifting large amounts of trash — tended to have more injuries, but that most common duties of janitors were still considered taxing enough to have a high injury risk. 

The U also handed out FitBit bands to track the workload and sleep patterns of 58 janitors, including Starkweather. While most workers reported normal sleep, about 26 percent said they slept less than six hours per night. 

Researchers found an increased risk of injury for that group compared to those who slept for at least eight hours. Janitors that reported sleep “disturbances,” such as insomnia or trouble falling asleep, had a higher risk of injury as well, the study says.

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Another study looked at awareness in the industry of workplace compensation laws, and found huge gaps in knowledge. More than half of those who responded to U surveys said they did not know what an injury-report log for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was, and most janitors did not know what workers’ compensation was. “So when they get injuries, they don’t know what to do,” Kim said.

That paper, published in early 2019, says data from Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry shows “extremely low injury rates” at companies that employ SEIU janitors and that several large businesses reported no injuries at all in 2014.

But the research argues state injury data is “incomplete and not comprehensive” because janitors either don’t know about workers’ compensation or face other barriers to reporting. The report concludes it is “essential” to teach workers how to access workers’ compensation.

How the research could play into bargaining

In the 2016 bargaining talks between SEIU and cleaning companies that led to the U’s research, the two sides negotiated a 12.3 percent raise for janitors over four years, pushing salaries of full-time workers above $15 an hour. The contract also guaranteed two sick days for part-time workers.

This time around, the union is hoping full-time workers will have six sick days and a new 15-minute paid break for every four hours they work. Greg Nammacher, secretary treasurer at SEIU 26, said janitors currently get a half-hour unpaid break and have between one and four sick days. Nammacher also said they’re pushing for increased wages.

The union is touting the U’s research to help build its case for more sick time and breaks, but also for “health audits” to measure workload at specific buildings and training on OSHA injury reporting with union representatives, Nammacher said. Iris Altamirano, president of SEIU 26, said workload is often “unrealistic” for janitors, something the union attributes to staff cuts by contracting companies over the years.

One U study says 38 percent of janitors surveyed said their workload had increased in the last year. Those that reported higher workload also were more likely to report injuries. “Now we have significant data to back up what we’ve been saying and what we know, and what the workers know,” Altamirano said.

John Nesse, an attorney representing business in bargaining, declined to comment on the U’s research or the ongoing contract negotiations. Attempts to reach three of the largest cleaning companies — American Building Maintenance, Harvard Building Maintenance and Marsden Building Maintenance — were also unsuccessful.

In 2016, before the current contract was agreed to, SEIU opted to strike. At the time, Nesse told Minnesota Public Radio that union janitors already had “highly competitive wages” and other benefits compared to other custodians, which he noted had come through past collective bargaining.

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As for the research, Kim, the U researcher, said people sometimes criticize studies based on surveys because they view self-reported information as subjective. Kim defended the method, saying objective measures of workload often don’t account for the differences in the age and health of people in a study. 

Still, there were many limitations to the research noted in the papers. One study also cautioned that survey data could be marred by “non-response bias,” which could happen if janitors without workplace injuries are less likely to participate. Another, on the workplace compensation, said low response rates.

One paper also says there was a higher risk of injury for janitors who reported a decrease in workload. The study says there could be several explanations, such as a hypothetical janitor back on the job after surgery that may have fewer duties but is at a higher risk of injury. 

A rare look 

Separate from contract talks, Kim said the U’s studies offer a rare academic look at janitorial work. He said few doctoral students feel researching the low-income field can advance their career.

One U paper says janitors can be challenging to research. There is high turnover in the field, language barriers, and sometimes undocumented immigrants who fear participating in studies or reporting injury.

Kim also said he hopes to do more research on janitor work in the future to look for ways to reduce injuries and study change in workload over time. That may rely on finding money and more on finding motivated students, he said.

Starkweather, who cleans at Ameriprise Financial in downtown, said she sleeps easier now that she works a morning shift rather than a night one. But she still remembers the feeling of trying to relax after a full shift, and she said the FitBit study showed the tough nature of the work. “I never realized what this job did to my body,” she said.