Custodial staff working at the U.S. Census Bureau headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, held a protest outside the building July 15 to speak out against what they’re calling unfair labor practices undertaken by the contractor that manages their employment.
Like many federal agencies, the Census Bureau relies on contractors to provide custodial services for its headquarters, meaning those workers are subject to the actions of a separate employer rather than federal workforce regulations.
Many of the custodial staff have been working at the Census Bureau for years, but the contract managing those workers was recently transferred to Alutiiq Logistics & Maintenance Services, which kicked off collective bargaining negotiations with the employees union.
“These workers have been here, some of them 30 years or more. They have a pension, they have all the benefits that each worker in America should have, and this company is coming in here and they took two hours from each one of the workers every day. They want to take away the pension, and they want to change a lot of the language that protects the workers in the contract,” said Jaime Contreras, vice president of SEIU 32BJ, which represents the custodial workers.
“We think that’s union busting. We think that’s shameful,” Contreras added.
According to Malia Villegas, media spokesperson for Alutiiq, the contractor managed to retain 91 percent of the incumbent custodial staff during the transition, after it received the contract award in March 2021 from the General Services Administration.
“I sacrificed my health and my family’s health for this job,” laid-off worker Dunia Orteja said in a news release. “I’m about to lose my house, and without income I won’t be able to feed my kids or afford my asthma inhaler.”
According to Contreras, the reduction in hours for the remaining workers — from eight to six hours a day — means those employees accrue less vacation time and sick leave. He added that the company also wants to remove language in the collective bargaining agreement that would protect an employee’s job for 90 days if that individual had to deal with immigration problems.
The workers also don’t have health insurance because they have yet to come to a contract agreement with Alutiiq.
“ALMS is adhering to all aspects of the Service Contract Act and has effectively maintained its employees’ wages and fringe benefits to include paying contributions previously paid into each bargaining member’s various union funds,” Villegas told Federal Times. “Negotiations with the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ are ongoing. ALMS is an equal opportunity employer and is committed to providing excellent janitorial services for the government customer.”
The protest over hours and benefits for Census Bureau custodial staff highlights the differences in regulations and protections between federal civil servants and contracted staff, even when they work in the same building.
According to the Office of Personnel Management website, hourly staff working for the federal government are entitled to the same protections as full-time staff in regard to removals. Federal employee benefits are also defined by law.
But the federal government largely contracted out much of its blue collar workforce under the Federal Workforce Restructuring Act of 1994, causing contractors, rather than government employees, to predominantly hold custodial, cafeteria worker and security staff positions.
Moments like federal government shutdowns have also highlighted the disadvantages such employees face when compared to government employees: The federal workforce is always granted back pay by Congress for hours lost during a shutdown, whereas contract employees are not.
The protest at the Census Bureau also comes at a time when cleaning jobs have become especially significant, as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed office hygiene at the top of agency plans to protect in-person employees.
According to Contreras, many of the custodial workers at the Census Bureau risked their health and sometimes contracted COVID-19 while performing their duties in-person.
The protestors hope their actions will place added pressure on Alutiiq to change its stance in upcoming contract negotiations.
“We’re getting other people involved. We’ve got congressional calls, including Congressman [Anthony] Brown, [D-Md.,] who’s going to do some outreach,” Contreras said. “If they don’t do the right thing, they’re going to have to deal with — not with me — they’re going to have to deal with the people who fund the census as well, so this is going to escalate.”
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.