Barely Getting By: How One Boston Worker Suffered When His Employer “Contracted Out”

by Rachel Nass

A Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) janitor for more than a decade, Jorge Rivera says that all he wants from his job is the peace of mind that he will be able to pay his bills each month—and that he won’t end up on the streets.

32BJ SEIU District 615 members at a Justice for Janitors March and Rally in Boston, Massachusetts on Saturday, June 21, 2014. Rose Lincoln Photo

“It’s nice to just go to work, do your job and go home,” Rivera says. “That’s all I want. I’m not looking for a raise, I’m not asking for a car, I just want to be somewhere that I can have the peace of mind that I don’t have to be homeless.”

Unfortunately, with the MBTA growing increasingly stingy with its janitorial services budget, Rivera’s direct employer, the contract firm S.J. Services, barely provides him with that basic sense of security. One of two cleaning services contractors that serve the MBTA, or the T, the company has dramatically cut Rivera’s hours in response to the MBTA’s purse-tightening, a move that also comes with a reduction in benefits.

“They cut everybody’s hours and took their health benefits,” Rivera says. “I have to pick up needles. I have to clean bathrooms with blood on the floor. It’s a nasty job, and not everybody likes to do it, but I do it because I need the job and I’m good at it, and it’s not fair cutting my benefits and cutting my hours like that.”

To help to illustrate the negative impact of the MBTA decision, Rivera and dozens of other T janitors, who are represented by the 32BJ SEIU union, spoke before the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board in September. The story they told is one that has become far too common for employees of contracting firms trying to maximize their profits, or complete work within the constraints of inadequate contracts. Workers’ hours and benefits have been slashed, their schedules are unpredictable, and their working conditions are increasingly sub-par.

Due to the reduction in hours and their low pay, most of the janitors must take on two or three jobs, and they still barely squeak by, according to Rivera, who works 14-hour days at two jobs in order to cover his mortgage and other bills.

On his days off, Saturday and Sunday, he says that he is too exhausted to get out of bed.

“It’s very stressful, jumping from one job to another,” Rivera says. “We all have two jobs because one job is not enough. The rent goes higher, everything goes higher except the salary.”

Across the country, “client” businesses—both corporations and government-funded entities like the MBTA—are increasingly opting to contract out portions of their work to staffing firms or contract companies, rather than hiring workers directly. While contracting out isn’t inherently wrong or unfair, workers can get short-changed when client businesses rely on “low road” middlemen entities, or when they misclassify their workers as independent contractors.

Often, the workers’ nominal employers (e.g., the staffing firm or contract company) employ drastic cost-saving methods in order to make a profit. Safety training isn’t as rigorous as it is for the client business’s direct employees, and the contract workers don’t always know “who’s the boss,” or where to turn when something goes wrong. With the proportion of contract workers in the U.S. rising to 15 percent (up from 10 percent) over the past decade, the trend is widespread, and as with other issues related to employment, low-wage workers, immigrants, and people of color usually feel the effects the most.

As part of our efforts to address the issue, the National Employment Law Project engaged Hart Research Associates to conduct comprehensive research into public awareness of and opinions about contracting out and its impact on workers and the economy overall. NELP and Hart Research released the results of the survey of 1,000 likely voters earlier this week.

One of Hart Research’s key findings is that the majority of those polled believe that the shift from direct employment to contracting out is a “bad” or “very bad” trend. This opinion is shared among men and women, Democrats and Republicans, and the old and young.

Also significant is the fact that poll participants grew more concerned about the trend as they were given more information about how contracting out harms workers. For example, support for laws that make it harder for companies to contract out increases from 61 percent to 65 percent after voters read content about how workers have suffered as contract employees.

Based on his own experience, Rivera believes that there must be a way to structure employment that is less harmful to workers. One day, he hopes to start an employee-owned cleaning company, so that he and his fellow janitors can share in the profits that they help to bring in.

“You can’t be greedy—you only have one life,” he says. “You have to be honest and even and fair.”

Learn more about the “Contracted Out” national voter survey:

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