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Courthouse Janitors to Receive Back Wages

July 14, 1999|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles cleaning service has agreed to pay $15,000 in back wages to eight janitors who said they were underpaid for years while cleaning the county courthouse in Long Beach.

State labor officials said the case, which stemmed from an investigation by an industry-funded watchdog group, marks the beginning of a crackdown on the underground economy in janitorial services.

Los Angeles supervisors in April terminated the county's $1-million annual contract with the cleaning firm, Natural Building Maintenance, after the allegations of underpayment surfaced.

Thomas Kim, the company's vice president, said the firm admitted no wrongdoing in paying the settlement.

The case was the first victory for the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, a watchdog group created by Service Employees International Union and funded by unionized janitorial firms. Javier Gonzalez, who directs a staff of three for the fund, said investigators visit commercial buildings at night when janitors enter to clean, then bring problems to the attention of state agencies such as the Labor Commission.

He said janitors, who are primarily Latino immigrants, are often misclassified as independent contractors and paid flat weekly rates that are often below the minimum wage. In the case of Natural Building Maintenance, he said, workers were paid in cash or with personal checks.

Gonzalez said in the most egregious case, a married couple cleaned the courthouse together but received only a single salary. However, Kim said the husband merely filled in for his wife when she was ill.

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