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Newt Gingrich's Cavalier View Of Janitorial Work Challenged By Facts

First Posted: 11/22/2011 12:17 pm Updated: 11/22/2011 1:32 pm

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich argued at an address at Harvard University last week that American school systems should fire their unionized janitors and let underprivileged children do the work instead, according to a report in Politico.

The upshot of the plan? The kids would learn life skills, and taxpayers would save money.

The logic for such an argument would seem to rely on two premises: that janitors are currently being overpaid for their work, and that their job is so easy a child could do it.

The nation's janitors, unionized and non-unionized alike, would probably disagree.

The mean wage for a janitor working in an elementary or secondary school is $13.74 an hour, or $28,570 per year, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average pay is significantly less for janitors working at private buildings, which comprise the vast majority of janitorial jobs: $10.56 per hour, or $21,960 a year.

The latter annual salary is below the poverty line for a family of four, according to the federal government's most recent poverty guidelines. It also happens to be less than the self-renewing monthly retainer that Gingrich enjoyed as a consultant to Freddie Mac between 1999 and 2002, according to Bloomberg.

Despite its relatively modest pay, a janitor's job isn't as easy as Gingrich seems to think it is. According to the Labor Department, a janitor needs to be able to carry out a long list of duties and repairs during a typical day: Mop and polish floors, handle dangerous chemicals, even perform basic electrical and plumbing repairs. At schools, they also need to interact well with children and, at times, clean up their vomit.

A janitor's job is also more dangerous than most American occupations -- and hardly fit for children, according to the Labor Department's description of the work. Janitors, it notes, "may suffer cuts, bruises, and burns from machines, handtools, and chemicals. They spend most of their time on their feet, sometimes lifting or pushing heavy furniture or equipment. Many tasks, such as dusting or sweeping, require constant bending, stooping, and stretching."

A spokesman for Gingrich's campaign could not immediately be reached for comment.

Gingrich made his remarks on unionized janitors to an audience that should know quite a bit about the subject. After long negotiations, Harvard's janitors, who are represented by the Service Employees International Union, just ratified a five-year contract with the school this past weekend, having received public support from much of the student body.

The contract includes what the SEIU has described as a "groundbreaking" childcare allowance worth up to $5,000 each year for workers, as well as a modest but important 3 percent annual raise, helping janitors' salaries keep pace with the ever-rising cost of living. The agreement also caps the percentage of janitors that Harvard can use through contractors, thereby stemming a trend that has helped erode workers' pay and benefits in the services industry and other blue-collar fields.

At Harvard, Gingrich said his plan to put kids to work as janitors would help them "begin the process of rising" in society.

And the contract won by the unionized janitors appears to do just that for workers and their children. One of the perks in the agreement allows janitors to take advantage of a tuition assistance program, letting them pursue Harvard degrees or continuing education classes at a discounted rate. That benefit, presumably, could lead to better jobs and brighter futures for the janitors and their families.

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