OLYMPIA — A state legislator recalled Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in calling for increased workplace safety for commercial janitors.
Remembering that King was supporting a strike by Memphis sanitation workers when he was assassinated in 1968 on a balcony outside his motel room, state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said Jan. 15, “Even now, in 2018, sanitation is still a dangerous profession. As we honor the legacy of Dr. King, we all must remember that the struggle for safe working conditions continues.”
Keiser is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 6227, which would require the state Department of Labor and Industries to conduct a study by the end of 2022 examining the greatest safety and health risks associated with commercial sanitation work.
The bill was inspired by a department work group’s determination that janitors are at greater risk of injury than service workers in other industries. The Janitorial Workload, Health, and Safety Work Group found that females, first-year workers and those with a first language other than English filed more compensable claims than all other demographics.
The work group recommended that training and access to safety information be improved, along with identification of safety issues.
The Senate Labor & Commerce Committee conducted a public hearing on SB 6227 Jan. 15.
Lulu Carillo is a janitor at Valley Medical Center in Redmond. At the hearing, she said she is encouraged to skip her breaks at work. Carillo said she was diagnosed in 2016 with a growing hernia that required a $70,000 surgery.
Carillo is a member of Service Employees International Union Local 6, the Seattle branch of a union that negotiates compensation and working conditions for service workers. Local 6 Political Director Mauricio Ayon said the Seattle branch represents more than 6,000 janitors, security officers and airport workers.
Another union member, Kim Lee, said she and many others wouldn’t choose careers in sanitation work if not for Local 6’s efforts in fighting for their safety. Lee works for Pacific Building Services in Tacoma and said she was recently admitted to the hospital because her employer was unable to provide her the safety equipment necessary to mitigate the effects of cleaning chemicals.
“I dance with a mop in 19 full bathrooms every night,” Lee said. “It’s really frustrating when you have to go to work every night knowing you can’t get any help.”
The public testimonies of Lee and others moved committee members to issue statements of their own.
“I’m hoping that we can move a little more quickly in terms of trying to get some standards in this industry to protect these workers,” said Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, a sponsor of Keiser’s bill. “These workers have a right to work in dignified conditions.”
Keiser, the committee’s chairwoman, echoed Conway’s statements and said she was moved by the personal testimonies of those in support of the bill.
“I am proud to sponsor legislation that provides safeguards to our sanitation workers,” Keiser said. “The struggle for social justice never ends, and here we are, still trying to make some progress.”
— Alex Visser is a reporter for WNPA’s Olympia News Bureau.