Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Cleaners union approves contract

Deal avoids a strike that could have affected 75 commercial buildings

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Members of a commercial cleaners union in Maryland voted Saturday to approve a new contract providing significant wage increases and benefit upgrades.

The vote avoided a potential strike that could have left unclean offices in more than 75 commercial buildings in Montgomery County and Baltimore. Those include Discovery Communications’ headquarters in Silver Spring, Bethesda Metro Center, Rock Spring Office Park in North Bethesda and the 40-story Legg Mason building in Baltimore — Maryland’s tallest skyscraper.

In Montgomery, the contract calls for a 27 percent pay increase for janitors over the next four years, leaders with Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ said. In Baltimore, the agreement will lead to a 28 percent pay raise.

Workers in both areas will receive up to two weeks vacation and employer-paid prescription drug coverage under the new contract.

In Washington, D.C., the contract provides for a 24 percent increase, lower health plan co-pays for full-time employees, and prescription drug and dental coverage for part-time employees.

A union spokeswoman declined to say how many members voted, but called the vote ‘‘unanimous,” saying the new deal provides for an estimated $100 million worth of wage gains and health benefits for employees.

Representatives from the Commercial Building Cleaning Contractors Association, an organization representing numerous area cleaning companies, and the union — which represents about 1,500 commercial cleaners in Montgomery County, 700 in Baltimore and 4,500 in Washington — agreed on new contracts a few days before the old agreement was set to expire on New Year’s Day.

Cleaning company executives are ‘‘very pleased” with the agreement, said Peter Chatilovicz, an attorney representing janitorial companies such as Red Coats and USSI, both based in Bethesda.

‘‘No unreasonable increases are expected,” Chatilovicz said.

The pay raise will make a big difference, Francisco Romero, a Maryland unionized cleaner, said in a statement. ‘‘Now I can finally afford to buy medicine when I get sick,” he said.

The median hourly pay of janitors and cleaners in Maryland was $9.24 in 2006, well below that of all occupations in the state of $16.74, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Maryland’s average pay for cleaners was also lower than the national average in that category of $9.58. In Washington, the median pay for janitors was $10.79.

Cleaners in Philadelphia, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey also recently won new commercial contracts with wage and benefit increases.