Janitors, jobs and priorities
By Ashley Bean Thornton
When I got home on July 12 a phone message was waiting for me – Did you see the paper? City of Waco is thinking of outsourcing janitorial services; 22 people might lose their jobs! Since I have been facilitating the Prosper Waco committee that is working hard to help people find exactly these kinds of jobs, I was certainly concerned. I zipped off a note to my city council rep, the mayor, and the city manager (among others). I’m pleased to say that all three responded quickly and thoughtfully. Their responses all shared the same basic message – we’re trying to make wise choices about how to best use limited resources.
We, the general public, tend to want everything. We want to pay people decent wages, and we also want more and more other stuff: Police and fire protection, street repairs, good water and utilities, parks, arts and culture, sidewalks, etc. etc. We like the comfort of the status quo, and we want the benefits that come with change. Also, we don’t really want to pay any more in taxes. It’s tough to choose among all these priorities.
In general, we the people of Waco, are not too keen on wrestling with the trade-offs and the exact details of how much of one thing we are willing to sacrifice in order to get some more of something else we want. We leave these “details” to the city staff. That’s A-OK with me. I have all kinds of confidence in our city staff. I believe they know a whole lot more about running a city than I do. And, I believe they are working as hard as they know how to help us grow the city we want. It is precisely because we trust our city officials to handle the details of these trade-offs, that it is important to communicate clearly to them what is most important to us.
I want our city leaders and staff to know that good jobs for all Wacoans is at the very top of our list of priorities. I want them to know that, if need be, we will support decisions to go slower on some of our other city goals in order to stay true to that value.
What does outsourcing a few janitorial jobs have to do with the lofty goal of good jobs for all Wacoans? Maybe not too much, but maybe quite a bit. I had never thought about outsourcing much before facilitating this Prosper Waco employment committee, but as I have learned more about how it works, I worry that it can lead to a general trend of trading good jobs for bad jobs.
By “good jobs” I mean full-time work with decent pay (at least $10 an hour) and benefits such as health care and retirement. By “bad jobs” I mean low pay, or offering only part-time work that never leads to any benefits. “Good” jobs build up our community and help create stable families. Bad jobs contribute to destabilizing families, and destabilized families contribute to a host of deep and long range challenges for our community.
I understand that the jobs I am calling “Bad” are not bad for all people in all situations. Too many bad jobs and not enough good jobs is the problem. That’s why I am concerned about the possibility of trading some of our good ones for bad ones.
When I heard that the city could save $294,000 by privatizing, I wondered how a contractor would be able to do the same work for so much less. One worrisome possible answer is that they will pay less, not offer equivalent benefits, or only let people work part time so that they never qualify for benefits. But, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. It could be that by focusing on the one core business of janitorial services contractors are able to gain efficiencies that allow them to offer lower rates to their customers while still offering their employees good jobs. The latter would be a win-win. The former would not be a win for Waco even if it represented considerable savings to the City HR budget.
I don’t know if outsourcing these janitorial jobs is a good idea or not. That depends on the exact details of the arrangement, and those are exactly the kind of details I depend on the city staff to scout out and our elected officials to discern. I just want them to know as they are weighing these decisions that we in the community believe that a commitment to good jobs should carry a lot of weight.
The 22 janitorial jobs that started this conversation are important. I am convinced after visiting with my Councilman, Dillon Meek, that if we do decide to outsource, the city will work hard to help those 22 people make the transition into jobs that are equivalent in terms of pay, hours and benefits.
Those 22 jobs, though, are not the whole story in regard to this notion of trading good jobs for bad. I’ll paraphrase a quote often attributed to Ghandi, “Be the change you wish to see in Waco.” I would like to see us follow that advice in regard to how we think about city jobs.
Making sure that people who work for the city get fair pay and benefits – whether they are on the city payroll or on a contractor’s payroll — is one way we as a city show that we expect other employers in Waco to do the same. When we are negotiating with businesses who are considering moving or expanding here, one thing we want from them is good jobs — jobs that contribute to the overall long term health of our community. I would be proud for the city to lead the way in that regard, even if it means we have to make some tough choices about other priorities.
This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco. She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.
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