Amid ongoing labor dispute, fired county janitors get their jobs back

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County janitors who were fired amid a labor dispute with the contractor they work for have been reinstated after a county investigation upheld an employee’s complaint of unsafe work conditions and retaliation.

After four workers were terminated, county janitors employed by Nova went on strike last week, then agreed to return to work after county officials pledged to investigate.

Officials with SEIU-USWW, which is helping the workers organize a union and has supported them in the dispute, announced Tuesday that the workers had been returned to their jobs with full back pay.

“This is a great victory, but we are not done until our employer recognizes our right to organize,” Sofia Martinez, a county janitor who was fired in January, said in a statement.

Nova said it had done nothing wrong but was working with the county to resolve any remaining labor issues. “We have been an equal opportunity employer,” said Eleanor Anglin, executive operations manager for the company. “We have never treated our employees bad.”

The strike was prompted by a complaint by Sofia Martinez, a janitor who said she was forced to work an eight-hour shift last month on her hands and knees using floor-stripping solution with no mask, gloves or goggles. She said she suffered back pain, nosebleeds and eye irritation in the following days, causing her to miss work, and was fired weeks later, along with three other janitors.

She filed complaints with county and federal labor authorities, and following an investigation, county officials sided with Martinez. They concluded in a report issued Jan. 26 that the company had used inappropriate chemicals, failed to provide appropriate protective equipment or training and retaliated against Martinez after she reported the problems.

Anglin disputed the county’s findings, saying Nova follows appropriate safety protocol. “We brought (employees) all the proper PPE gear: gloves, goggles, knee pads,” she said. She denied that employees were required to work on their hands and knees for an entire shift.

Anglin confirmed that Martinez and the three other fired employees had been rehired. She said Nova had taken over the contract for the administration center late last year for a previous contractor and is working with the county to answer additional questions.

The dispute that prompted the strike takes place against a broader labor effort by county janitors.

SEIU-USWW policy director Christian Ramirez said a majority of the janitors had agreed to form a union, but their employer has not recognized it yet. Nova must choose whether to voluntarily recognize the union or call for a formal election.

Late last year, the Board of Supervisors enacted a policy to protect more than 1,000 janitors, landscapers and security staff against wage theft, sexual harassment and other unfair work practices by county contractors. That policy set wage standards for employees, created a wage theft fund to reimburse employees for unpaid wages and established sexual harassment prevention programs.

Ramirez said janitors are asking county supervisors to require Nova to honor the new labor policy and recognize the janitors’ union as conditions of Nova’s contract with the county.

Board of Supervisors Chair Nora Vargas, who had arranged the cooling-off period between Nova and its janitors last week, said she would keep negotiating with all parties to ensure fair working conditions.

“Our County and I are committed to creating a safe and healthy environment for all our workers, and we expect our contractors to do the same,” she said in an emailed statement, adding that she intended to reach “a resolution that ensures the safety and well-being of our janitors.”

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