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County janitorial companies must protect workers’ rights or lose their contracts, supervisors decide

In a win for county office janitors whose labor dispute has pulled in the Board of Supervisors, San Diego County will ask its janitorial contractors to protect working conditions and rights of janitors, landscapers and other employees as a condition of keeping their contracts, the board decided in a split vote Tuesday.

Companies working for the county must abide by a new policy spelling out those rights, or their contacts will expire after the first year and the county will solicit competitive bids to fill them.

In a 4-1 vote, the board directed the contracting department to negotiate with current contractors to incorporate the new labor standards into existing contracts for janitorial, landscaping and security services, and authorized the agency to solicit bids for that work if an agreement can’t be reached. Supervisor Jim Desmond objected, saying new contracts would be too expensive.

The new county policy protects janitors, landscapers and security staff against wage theft, sexual harassment and other unfair work practices by county contractors, setting wage standards and creating a wage-theft fund to reimburse employees. But the policy, passed in December, doesn’t apply to contracts entered before that.

County janitors have been pushing since late last year for their employer, Nova, to agree to labor standards the board passed in December for new county contractors. They also want recognition of their union.

Last month, Nova janitors went on strike after a worker said she had been forced to work with caustic chemicals and no protective equipment, then fired along with three others, in what the union charged was retaliation.

The janitors agreed to return to work during a two-week cooling-off period after county officials pledged to investigate. The four fired employees were reinstated with back pay last week, and officials said negotiations with the company over worker protections are ongoing.

Nova employees still want the company to voluntarily recognize their union, and to agree to the county’s new labor standards. They have left open the option to resume their strike if they can‘t make progress but will keep working now that some of their demands have been met, said Christian Ramirez, policy director for SEIU-USWW, which is helping the employees organize a union.

Ramirez called Tuesday’s vote by the supervisors “a concrete step in the right direction, with the ultimate goal of reaching a collective bargaining agreement with Nova or a responsible contractor.”

He said he hopes negotiations with the company will conclude within 30 to 60 days.

Once their union has been recognized by Nova, they would begin collectively bargaining toward a contract that establishes pay, benefits and work conditions comparable to those of other unionized janitors at private companies in San Diego.

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