January 21, 2020
According to the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, approximately 1,500 office cleaners work in the city. If you work in an office, you may not even see the people who keep it clean. Often they come in at night and perform their duties alone. We talked to a few of these nearly invisible workers and learned about pride in spaces made spotless and lives given dignity.
Photography Nate Guidry
Reporting Steve Mellon
“I started out working in fast food, like most people to do, and I loved my job,” said Nekia Burton-Tucker, 27, of the Hill District. “No matter what job I do, I love it. So I was making $8.25 an hour. One of the GMs came in and said, ‘Hey, you're always at work, you're always working. I want you to become a manager.’ ”
“Cool, that's great. How much would I make?” Ms. Burton-Tucker pointed out that she was catching two buses to work and was a single parent. She said the manager told her she’d make $10 an hour and be up for a raise every six months.
“I thought, perfect.” Ms. Burton-Tucker said. “That way I can stop working multiple jobs.
“But every time [a managing position] came up, they kept passing me up, passing me up. It was different stipulations. Like, ‘You need a car. You need to work 40-plus hours.’ And then I beat every expectation. I bought the car, I worked the hours. The last straw was when they brought a 19-year-old in and made her a manager in a month.”
After working a job in Bridgeville, she took a job as a cleaner at a building on the North Side.
“It was fine for a while, but getting the car had messed me up,” she said. “Because my car was, like, 300-some dollars [a month], and insurance was high because I was under 25 years old.
“I lived at a place in the Hill District where it was $450 a month, but going from working at Arby's 40-plus hours to working on the North Side as an extra — I lost a lot of hours. So I was only making maybe $900 a month.
“My landlord wasn't very nice. I'm like, ‘Well, listen, I got a new job. I just need a couple of months to get back on my feet.’
“You got a brand new car outside,” the landlord said.
“I needed it for work,” Ms. Burton-Tucker responded.
She then went through the entire eviction process.
“We ended up becoming homeless,” she said. “I didn't have much help. So me and my son slept in the car for ... I'm sorry, I don't know why I still cry ...
“Mostly, I parked in the Hill District. Sometimes the YMCA, we’d wash up there. He and I would get up and we'd go take a shower there. He'd work out with me for a little bit and then I’d take him to school. My son is very intelligent. He was never, like, ‘Mom, we're sleeping in the car.’ I think he knew I was stressed out, so he kept me smiling and kept me going. He never even complained about it.
“I don't want him to ever feel like it's his fault or he's a burden. So I just kept smiling and kept going. But it was very depressing. Some nights I would sit in the car while he was sleeping and I’d just get upset. ‘Why me? What did I do? What karma is this?’”
Nekia and her son lived in the automobile for about 2½ months in 2015. During that time, she attended a rally staged by SEIU-32BJ. Her enthusiasm earned her a job canvassing and organizing union members. After a few months, she was hired full time to clean an office building in Downtown. She also works part time at Amazon and as a bartender.
She said, “I don't have to worry about, ‘What am I going to pay now? What am I not going to pay?’ I don't have to worry about not getting my son winter clothes because it came early this year. I guess I'm still struggling. But it's only for better things. I want to take my son on trips, like to the Smithsonian. I want to do more for him so he can see more than just Pittsburgh.”
For Chad Chechak, 31, of Mount Oliver, the news came from out of nowhere.
Mr. Chechak has been cleaning an office building in the Strip District since he was laid off from his job as a security guard in Oakland in November 2018. He had held that job for 10 years and earned a fixed-rate wage of $9 an hour.
Then, he received horrific news in late February: His mother, Mercedes, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The diagnosis was stunning.
“She felt ill one afternoon. We rushed her to the hospital because she was feeling fatigued, and she immediately got diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She didn't make it out of the hospital. She died in Mercy 10 days later,” he said.
Mr. Chechak said she was the rock of the family.
“It was me, my father, my brother and my mother that lived in the same house,” he said. “And when she passed away, everyone dispersed. So it was hard times. And that's not even including the fact that right after mom died, my tax return got taken for college offset. So that really, really set me back.
“When you're working, you have something to do. You have something to look forward to. Otherwise, you're just going to sit in a house all day and just drift. [You get] mentally depressed. It’s sunny outside, really nice weather — and you’re just in the basement, sitting, because nothing’s opening up. I happened to stumble upon this job for housekeeping.
“I live with my brother now and I’ve lived with my parents, but I've always intended to get my own place. I just never had the means of saving, because when I worked security, I was taking care of my family and now I don't have that responsibility anymore, so this job has been really helpful.”
“My cleaning skills have gone way up since I started. And I've lost 20 more pounds. It's actually healthy and it keeps me active. Now, weirdly, even when I'm in my own house, I'm like, ‘Oh, that microwave is looking a little dirty.’ Spritz, spritz, spritz. And I start to see dust on the floor and I'm, like, ‘Ahhhh!’
“I'm slowly, slowly getting my happiness levels back up.”
Paul Griffin has made his place in his line of work.
“I've been in the same building now for 33 years,” Mr. Griffin, 64, of McKeesport, said. “And when I first came there, there was a floor that had been undergoing renovation. They had spent multiple millions of dollars renovating it. And all the high executives were on that floor.
“So my new supervisor — I was a fairly new employee — she decided to take a chance and put me up there and see how I perform. After a little while, they came down with rave reviews. They liked what I was doing, they liked how I was doing it. And I just felt so good after that. I figured, ‘Well, OK, I have a place here. I have a place in this industry.’”
Mr. Griffin, who cleans a building in Downtown, said different shifts can mean different things.
“It seems on the 4-12 p.m. shift ... you have to always be on your guard for people that are around you,” he said. “But when you go to nights, there’s a bit of serenity. You know, you're paying attention to what you're doing but, at the same time, your mind can go to something else. You can think about something else. You can think pleasant thoughts.
“Me, I like to listen to music. Sometimes, I'll even break into song. I've heard some things about that. Supervisors come up and they say, ‘Oh, I thought something was wrong with the plumbing here, or something.’ But it's good whenever you can be at peace like that.”
Mr. Griffin said cleaning buildings today has its challenges because of energy efficiency.
“They're making the building's more energy efficient now,” he said. “So you're talking a lot of glass. You're talking dark carpet, light walls. A lot of those renovations are a challenge when you're trying to clean.
“Everything shows up on a dark carpet, everything shows up on a light work surface. There's always smudges on glass. So it's a challenge for us. And especially seasonal, come wintertime, with the salt that's dragged into the building. The amount of work that we need to get out within eight hours is really a challenge. It's almost like we're miracle workers.
“What I try to say to the management — because sometimes management in the buildings can get harsh on certain people — I say, ‘Well, sometimes you have to be a little easy, because we've all gone through personal pain. And you don't know what pain someone is carrying into the job.’”
From nursing to cleaning. For Leslie Rose, it meant working hard to make it all work.
“I was working at a personal care home,” Ms. Rose, 62, of Homestead, said. “I went to Duff’s business school and I got my certificate and they placed me there. I was doing everything that an LPN would do. I was doing wounds, passing out meds, cleaning people.’
“ I was doing it all, and then they were trying to put more work on us. They said we had to do laundry. We had to clean, too, and do the patients and do the meds. I was like, ‘that's too much work.’ I stayed there for five years, and I quit. Then I got into retail, and they laid me off.
Sometimes advice comes from many places. In this case for Ms. Rose, it came from a fellow passenger on a bus.
“So I was taking my daughter to get some school clothes and there was this guy on the bus,” She said. “He said, ‘Well, Leslie, they're hiring down at this cleaning company.’”
Ms. Rose wondered if you needed experience to apply for the job. The passenger said she did not.
“My first day as a cleaner, I had one of those big dust mops,” she said. “And the guy was looking at me, and I didn't really know how to use it right. And he said, ‘What did you do before?’”
Ms. Rose told him she was a nursing assistant.
“Maybe you should go back to that,” the man replied
“Are you serious? Give me a chance, you know,” she said. “This is my first day on the job. So give me a chance. Please teach me. Teach me how to do it properly, so I know next time how to do it.”
So he did.
“Then [the supervisor] said if anybody wants to make extra money, you can,” she said. “ ‘You can stay out with me longer.’ So I think, I would like to make some extra money. If I put this little bit away for my daughter and put this away for the house, you know, just just in case I need something for the house, then I'm good.
“So that's what I did. I worked overtime and bought a car. I bought a phone for my daughter. I bought new furniture for my house and went on a little vacation
“I like to clean. I was always the one cleaning up my mom's house. I started the ball rolling. There were 10 of us. Five brothers and five sisters. I said, ‘If we clean and we do it together we can get out of here and go play.’ We weren’t going anywhere until we cleaned and did our chores.”
Ms. Rose looks into the future, beyond her cleaning job in an Oakland building.
“I like babies, infants. And not just the infants that are born healthy,” she said. “The ones that are struggling with the drugs and stuff. I tried getting into that but it was just so much. I might still do it when I'm retired. I might just go and volunteer, you know, touch base with what I really wanted to do. I would like to have been a neonatal nurse.”
Tommy Magana may not have been able to carry on a family tradition, but he made his own mark in the workplace.
“My father was a steel mill worker. My grandfather was a steel mill worker,” Mr. Magana, 59, of the North Side, said. “All steel mill workers and coal miners. My mother's side, they were the coal miners — Maguires.
“ My father’s Mexican. They were the steelworkers. I thought I was going to be in the mills, but they ended up going out, so there went the tradition. Otherwise, I would have been a steelworker.
“I wanted it. I wanted to carry it on. Well, we rebound pretty good. We got through it. The transition went smooth for Pittsburgh. From the smoky city to now.”
Mr. Magana’s doesn’t see what he does as work.
“I've been a janitor since 1977,” he said. “I started out at Northway Mall at 17. And I just love the job. I love what I do.
“I found out as I got older, if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. I have no problem working seven days a week. I take pride in my job … refinishing floors, making the old look new again. That’s good for me. That was my calling, I guess.
“I could have done other things, you know. Got a trade, been an ironworker, because I love being up, like when I was roofing. I could have done anything but I chose just being a janitor.”
Even when he takes a vacation, Mr. Magana starts to get the itch to return to his job cleaning at Station Square.
“When I take a vacation, it's crazy,” he said. “Because I can't wait to go on vacation, right? When I'm on vacation, after three days, I can't wait to get back to work. Am I just alone or is everybody like that? I don't know. I'm like, ‘Oh, I gotta get back to work.’
“It's been an honor you know, working as a janitor. I find dignity in it. I don't know if some don't. I do. I take pride in my work.”
For Jeffrey Waddell, cleaning buildings at the University of Pittsburgh means keeping people healthy.
“There are 77,000 germs in the bathroom that we combat every day, and that alone is a very daunting task,” Mr. Waddell, 61, of Penn Hills, said. “At Pitt, because we have an influx of so many students from Japan, Spain, from across the world coming here, we're constantly trying to keep up with enough germ warfare to kill the germs, to make a difference.
“Why? Because colds, respiratory situations, even infectious diseases have come across the borders.”
And when someone is ill, Mr. Waddell and his colleagues are one of the lines of defense.
“Short-term, long-term effects on our bodies — we have to go in there [dorm rooms]. If a person says their roommate has a really bad cold, can you come and disinfect? We have to go in there.
“This young lady came through as a freshman. I had to clean the dorms down at the towers and we interacted a little bit. So the summer came and she moved up, from a freshman to a sophomore. She's moving back in. We reconnected. We talked for a few minutes. And she says, ‘Mom, this is Jeff.’
“When she said that the mom looked at me — I got kind of nervous at first. I said, Hi, how are you doing?’”
The woman replied: “Oh, you’re Jeff? Thank you for making this a home for my daughter.”
That proved a point to Mr. Waddell: He and his co-workers make a difference in people’s lives.
“And that showed me what we do, even though sometimes our employers don't realize it ... we do make a difference. To think she would take it all the way home — she lived out of state — and talk about me, not a professor, not her dorm partner, but to include me in her conversation about her college experience.
“People fail to realize, an ‘atta boy’ goes a long way. It’s just appreciation.”
Photography Nate Guidry
Reporting Steve Mellon