Luis Rodrigues, a janitor who works in a Mid-Wilshire office building, relies on the same health coverage plan as most of his fellow janitors. "If I get sick I just pray to God that I'll get better because I don't have the money to go to a doctor," he said.
About 60% of the approximately 250 janitors in the Mid-Wilshire area belong to Local 399 of the Service Employees International Union, union organizers said. Union janitors earn $5 an hour; non-union janitors generally earn $4.25 an hour, the legal minimum.
But whether they belong to the union or not, none of the janitors along the Wilshire corridor receives health insurance coverage from their employers, union organizers said. That's why the union is once again cranking up its Justice for Janitors campaign, demanding health insurance and higher wages.
Most of the janitors along the Wilshire corridor are Latino. Separate studies by a Latino research group and a team of UCLA researchers found that compared with other ethnic groups, a greater percentage of Latinos lack health insurance despite having a high degree of employment.
The studies found that nearly 40% of Latinos nationally and statewide are uninsured, with higher figures for first-generation immigrants. Among the reasons cited in the studies are low wages and employment in small firms that often do not provide coverage.
Janitors who work in office buildings are generally hired by cleaning contractors retained by building owners or their management companies. Union contractors working Downtown and in Century City offer health benefits and a $5.95-an-hour wage as a result of an earlier Local 399 campaign.
But under the union's multitiered contract system, janitors in the Mid-Wilshire area, Beverly Hills and Westwood earn $5 an hour and receive no health coverage. Wages and vacation time vary according to the local sub-market.
Cleaning companies, union or not, cite cost as the main reason for not offering health benefits. Ron Goins, division president of ISS Servisystem Inc., a union contractor working in several Mid-Wilshire buildings, said his costs could increase by as much as 40% if he offered wages and health benefits comparable to those provided to union janitors Downtown or in Century City. Health insurance would cost about $125 a month for each employee, according to one estimate.
Contractors are caught in the middle, said a union contractor who requested anonymity.
"We can't offer health coverage unless the building owners want to pay for it," he said.
But many building owners are "having a difficult time staying afloat," said Geoffrey Ely, executive director of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. In some Mid-Wilshire buildings, vacancy rates are near 25% and costs are rising, he said.
Rivas said union members along the Wilshire corridor have voted to strike if they cannot negotiate for health benefits. But the union received a blow last week when Zufu Properties Ltd. of Central Plaza dropped its union cleaning company, which employed 20 janitors.