Last week Maria stopped by my office to talk to me about her desire to get out of poverty. For thirteen years she has worked 40 hours a week as a janitor at the Palo Alto headquarters of Hewlett Packard, one of Silicon Valley’s largest and wealthiest corporations. Under the terms of her current contract with Somer Building Management, the janitorial contractor who employs her, she is unable to earn more than the eleven dollars an hour with which she supports a disabled husband and a teenaged son.
Those eleven dollars an hour don’t go very far. Maria’s annual gross earnings from cleaning up after the engineers at HP are less than a thousand dollars over the federal poverty line. Her take-home pay places Maria’s family well below the poverty threshold, and it’s important to remember that the Federal Government’s figures on poverty are not adjusted for a region’s cost of living. The same numbers are used to establish the poverty line in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Appalachia. Maria tells me that close to two-thirds of her take-home pay goes to pay her rent, and I believe it. Maria and I live in the same East San Jose neighborhood. It is among the region’s lowest rent districts, and my family—with no consumer debt and an income of nearly four times that of Maria’s—sometimes finds it hard to afford the cost of living. To make ends meet, Maria works an extra twenty hours a week as a janitor at Macy’s.
Maria told me that she’d like a raise. She’s hoping that, with the help of her union, her wages will increase to fifteen dollars an hour over the next three years—Maria’s union won similar wage concessions for janitors in Los Angeles two weeks ago. When we spoke, Maria reported that her employer was offering Maria and her fellow janitors a raise of thirty to forty cents an hour over three years. She also said that her health benefits—the one bright spot in her compensation (she pays $30 a month for her family’s coverage at Kaiser)—is on the chopping block. If Maria’s fears are realized, she will start paying more than $600 each month for her family’s medical insurance, with only an extra hourly dime or so thrown in each year to make up the difference. These are reasonable requests, yet she asked me to make up a pseudonym for her—“Maria”—lest her employer punish her for going public with her desire not to live in poverty.
At the end of April the contract between Bay Area janitors and their employers expired. The folks who actually are engaged in active negotiations are unable to disclose the details of the various offers and counter offers on the table, but it’s safe to say that a great deal of space exists between management and labor. So far, negotiations have proved to be unsuccessful; janitors in the Bay Area started walking off the job on Tuesday.
But why should someone like me care? I’m not a janitor, and the guy who cleans my church is a part-time employee of our congregation, and our church is not a union shop. Which dog in this fight belongs to people like me?
The answer is that no one benefits from the poverty of the janitors in Silicon Valley. Insofar as poor families rely more heavily upon public support for medical care and nutritional supplements such as the WIC program and free school meals, the refusal of Maria’s employer to pay her more than a poverty level wage does not mean that she and her family will go hungry or will lack medical care, it just means that tax payers like me will foot the bill. Maria came to my office expressing a desire to join the ranks of taxpayers who put more into the system than they take out. Economically, it makes good sense to welcome her and her fellow janitors into the lower middle class.
Of course I’m not an economist, I’m a clergyman. I deal in issues of justice and morality more than in economics, and if supporting the financial aspiration of the striking janitors makes economic sense, there is no question that their cause is as moral as it is just. I don’t want to live in a community where someone who works hard at an honest job must live in poverty. As much as our nation’s economy struggles through hard times, people around the world still are buying computers and high tech gadgetry. Hewlett Packard, whose cubicles and hallways and toilets Maria has been cleaning for thirteen years, just reported 28.3 billion dollars in revenue for the last quarter. If any industry in any region in the country has the economic viability to support a janitor’s living wage, it is the high tech industry in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Let’s give Maria a decent raise. We have no excuse.