San Diego County Administration Building / File photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to put janitorial services at three sites, including the County Administration Center, out to competitive bid and begin negotiations with contractors to comply with a new policy passed in December

That policy requires janitorial, landscaping and security contracts to include labor peace and collective bargaining agreements. It also sets aside a portion of the money awarded to contractors in a wage theft fund and establishes a wage floor for workers to be reevaluated every five years. 

The policy is supposed to be phased in as current contracts expire, but county leaders are effectively putting pressure on contractors to speed up the transition or face a more competitive bidding process the next time around. 

Tuesday’s action stems from a dispute between the county’s contracted janitors and their employer, NOVA. The workers went on strike several weeks ago but stood down after Chair Nora Vargas arranged a cooling-off period for negotiations. 

“If we need to go on strike to change our conditions and get a fair salary,” said Maria Guzman through a translator, “we are willing to do so.” 

The workers want NOVA to recognize their union and immediately abide by the December policy. NOVA CEO Sophia Silva told officials she’s open to it and still in negotiations. 

The January strike was triggered when Sofia Martinez and other janitors were fired. Martinez alleged that she suffered nausea, bloodshot eyes and vomiting while working without protective equipment on her hands and knees. Weeks later, NOVA rehired the workers with back pay, the Union-Tribune reported, after the county’s Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement sided with Martinez. The company also agreed to a number of corrective actions, including training for supervisors. 

Christian Ramirez, policy director for SEIU United Service Workers West, credited the mostly immigrant women for taking a stand and bringing their working conditions to public attention. “It’s thanks to their courage that they got the wheels of government moving,” he said. 

The Democrats on the Board of Supervisors have all been supportive of greater workplace protections, introducing a series of proposals in recent years. “It’s important for us to create a safe and healthy county,” Vargas said, “and we have clear expectations from our contractors to do the same.”

Republican Jim Desmond, the lone no vote on Tuesday, said he was worried about the long-term costs of the new contracts and whether small contractors would be able to compete with larger ones.  

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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