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Janitors and home care workers demand better pay, labor protections from county

Janitors who clean county offices paused their strike Tuesday after San Diego County officials pledged to help resolve what the workers call abusive conditions and retaliation by the contractor they work for.

After going on strike late Monday, the janitors agreed to return to work Wednesday for a two-week cooling-off period while supervisors and the county’s labor office investigate the complaints against the contractor, Nova, and seek reinstatement of fired employees.

That step came after a pair of labor actions outside the County Administration Center on Tuesday, reflecting the multiple labor disputes county officials are negotiating.

As janitors in purple shirts marched outside the south entrance, waving signs condemning what they said were unfair labor practices, home care workers clad in green rallied on the building’s south side in a separate event, calling for a $1-an-hour pay raise and benefits.

Home caregivers want the county to raise their pay, now $16 per hour, by $1 per hour for the next three years and improve their health coverage. Supervisors considered those demands during a closed session Tuesday.

The janitors’ announcement of their strike Monday led supervisors to reschedule events in support. Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer canceled a meeting on the county’s decarbonization plan that evening to avoid crossing the picket line.

By Tuesday, however, Board Chair Nora Vargas said the workers had agreed to suspend the strike for two weeks, while the county Office of Labor Standards & Enforcement tries to investigate and resolve the dispute. “Give us two weeks to do the right thing, so we can bring Nova to the table,” she said.

Nova declined to discuss the complaint, citing the pending investigation, and said it was working with the county.

On Dec. 13, the Board of Supervisors passed a policy to protect more than 1,000 janitors, landscapers and security staff against wage theft, sexual harassment and other unfair work practices by companies with county contracts. That policy set wage standards for contractors’ employees, created a wage theft fund to reimburse employees for missing wages and established sexual harassment prevention programs.

The allegations against Nova reflect the kind of problems that policy was intended to prevent, said Christian Ramirez, policy director for SEIU-USWW, which represents janitors and other public workers statewide. The county janitors are in the process of organizing, he said, and the union is supporting them in their dispute with Nova.

On Dec. 20, Sofia Martinez, an employee with Nova, said she was forced to work on the floor with caustic chemicals, in what she charged was retaliation for her labor advocacy.

“They forced me to work on my knees for eight hours, with 15 liters of chemicals, without a mask or eye protection or gloves,” she said Tuesday.

Martinez said she suffered back pain, nosebleeds and eye irritation and was fired on Jan. 9. Ramirez said some other employees were also dismissed around that time.

Ramirez said the workers are seeking better working conditions, as well as reinstatement and back pay for the workers who were terminated.

Caregivers rally outside the County Administration Building on Tuesday.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a separate event Tuesday, home care workers rallied for better pay and benefits, as the county holds collective bargaining talks with their union, United Domestic Workers Local 3930.

“Workers are coming out to make sure the county continues to make good on its commitment to fixing long-term healthcare,” said Matthew Maldonado, the union’s director of internal operations.

There are 30,000 home care workers caring for 38,000 people in the program now, he said. Most are family members assisting a parent, child or other relative who is eligible for Medicare.

Their work allows older and disabled people to continue to live at home, assuring a higher quality of life for patients and cost savings for the state, which would otherwise have to pay for residential care, he said.

Home care workers earn $16 per hour now. The union is calling for the county to raise that by $1 per hour for the next three years and to provide life insurance and expanded health benefits for caregivers.

David Haskins, a board member with the union and caregiver for his partner, who is legally blind, said he handles food preparation, manages medication and attends doctor visits with his partner but had to fight to get paid for the hours he works.

Having a dedicated caregiver gives patients something to look forward to, Haskins said. “When they’re motivated, their quality of life is better,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors was expected to consider the proposed home care contract in closed session Tuesday and hold a bargaining session Thursday, Maldonado said.

Once the county and labor negotiators reach a tentative agreement, he expects it to take about three months to ratify and adopt it.

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