Denver, CO

Denver airport janitors say they cannot feed their families

David Heitz

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Denver International Airport's main terminalJoshua Sukoff/Unsplash

Janitors from Denver International Airport packed the City Council chambers Monday and told officials they are paid so poorly they cannot feed their families.

The custodians spoke during most of the 30-minute public comment period. Council members do not respond to comments made during that part of the meeting to maximize time for public comment.

The workers from SEIU Local 105 number about 300. They staged a one-day strike last month but then returned to work. The janitors are demanding improved wages and working conditions.

Many if not most of them work two jobs to make ends meet, one janitor said. “Airport workers want your support,” he told the council. “We cannot put food on the table.”

“We love our jobs, but we cannot be living this way,” commented another.

People of color, immigrants most affected

In a press release about the strike, the union explained the contractors are struggling. “The janitors, who are a majority people of color and immigrants in our community, say that the low pay is only worsening the staffing shortages at the airport, and the strike is their response to a lack of an agreement to show (Flagship Facility Services, the contractor) their determination for improved wages and working conditions.”

One worker quoted in the press release said the janitors want the best for everyone. “This isn’t easy for any of us, but we have to stand together to make sure that we’re treated fairly for the essential work that we do,” Luis Gonzales said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to make this a better airport for everyone, because when airport workers are paid wages we can live on, we can create a better experience for passengers.”

One worker told the council that it used to be a prestigious job to work janitorial at the airport. “We were paid fairly and treated with respect.”

Many who spoke Monday said they take pride in their work. “I am one proud janitor along with all my co-workers here,” a speaker said. “We feel we are undervalued and overworked.”

Janitors don’t feel like ‘heroes’

Several janitors said that although they have been called “heroes” at the airport for keeping it clean, “When our family and our kids say we don’t feel like heroes, that hurts us.”

Working as a custodian in one of the world's busiest airports during the COVID-19 pandemic is scary, some janitors said. They are not considered essential workers yet they are picking up trash and wiping down counters, sterilizing the airport to make it safe.

“Everyone knows that the people who work here keep this place running, every job is essential,” Amer Garsak, a janitor at the airport, was quoted in the union press release. That’s why they called us heroes for the past 20 months. Until they recognize that by treating us like it, we’re going to have to do what is necessary for our families.”

It is unclear whether the janitors will stage another strike. “All we’re asking for is what’s necessary,” a speaker commented. “Everything has gone up in Colorado.”

In October, 99 percent of members voted to authorize the one-day strike.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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