Angel Flores recalls looking up at the televisions, watching Hurricane Harvey wreck everything in its path. His home city of Houston was being hit hard, leaving a trail of damage and death behind it, and all he can think of was his wife and children. He hadn’t seen them in days.
“It hurts me to talk about this,” says Flores. “My family was at home, and I was here. It was something so hard. I yearned for them so much.”
Flores has been a janitor at the city of Houston’s transport building for 14 years. He’s an employee of JBM, a janitorial cleaning service, which is subcontracted by another company, McLemore Building Maintenance.
When Harvey hit, his building became an emergency ground zero and was placed into lockdown. Someone at the transport building requested three janitors to stay in the building while employees at the government office worked around the clock to monitor the storm, and public officials like the mayor and governor stopped in. When that couldn’t be accommodated, they requested that Flores work 24 hour shifts for an uncertain amount of days.
“What do I do? I don’t have an option,” says Flores. “They sent another two people after five days or so. But really there’s not an option. And once you’re here, you can’t leave anywhere.”
In total, Flores worked for 24 hours for seven days straight. He slept about 2 hours a night in a small closet, only to be woken up at 4 am to empty out the trash.
Those seven days were immediately followed by another four days where he worked 12-hour shifts. That’s 12 days of working before he had a day to rest, all while a Hurricane Harvey ravaged the outside.
“Every 10 minutes you had to pick up trash. It was continuous. No breaks,” says Flores, who lost six pounds due to the brutal work schedule. “I took 10-to-15 minutes to eat, because that was the less I can do. I know I didn’t have enough time. I had to go back because the trash would start piling up.”
Flores says the pats on the back and words of encouragement he received from coworkers helped him throughout the ordeal. He felt he was doing his part to help the city of Houston. And while the experience and those moments of kindness bring him to tears, it isn’t enough to support him and his family financially.
He was worried he wouldn’t be paid for the extra hours he worked through the storm, especially because he feels his employer, JBM, has shorted his checks for years by not paying overtime.
In fact, Flores filed a wage theft complaint against JBM in an attempt to resolve the ongoing pay problem. He also spoke out about his experience with wage theft on a panel with Texas State Senator Garcia and Houston Councilmember Gallegos.
And when Flores received his first check after the hurricane, he says JBM did not pay him the correct amount. When his check finally arrived, it was short a little over $100.
It was at that time that Senator Garcia and Councilmember Gallegos stepped in to help.
“Senator Garcia and Councilmember Gallegos made personal calls on my behalf to McLemore, JBM’s boss, to make sure I got paid correctly,” he says. “And when I got the next check after the hurricane, they paid me everything I was owed. I really believe it is because the Senator and Councilmember called.”
Still, that hasn’t saved him from retribution from his employers. Since he’s made the complaint, Flores says they’ve cut his hours and challenged whether he was actually working all 24 hours.
“They were saying I wasn’t in the building and that it looked like I didn’t clean,” he says. “But I clock in and have to use a card to get into the building. I have the proof I was there.”
As a result, he’s forming a union with other janitors and custodial workers with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Texas, because unfortunately he’s not the only one.
Anita Hernandez was also caught in the hurricane while working her janitorial shift at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. An employee of an outside janitorial services company, her regular routine of cleaning bathrooms, windows and escalators was interrupted by the flood of 10,000 Harvey victims who came to the convention center to seek shelter.
“When I got to work, I found a lot of people, refugees from the storm,” she recalls. “I was in the area with elderly people. It was sad for me to see them that way. It was a disaster the first day.”
Hernandez went above and beyond her regular duties, changing diapers for elderly people, taking them to the bathroom, cleaning them, getting their food and feeding them, speaking with them and sending photos and video to their loved ones in Mexico to let them know they were safe. She stayed at the convention center for a week straight, working late into the night to help those senior citizens in need.
“I had to do it out of humanity,” she says. “I had to do my job but I also felt like I needed to help these people. I felt like I had survived and to thank God. And I felt blessed to be in a place where I could help people.”
Hernandez had survived Hurricane Katrina, and says, “I didn’t expect to be in this situation again. That was the ugliest thing I have ever seen.” But she felt it her duty to rise to the occasion.
“I always had it in my mind that if we made it through Katrina, I would live to help people,” she says.
During the Hurricane, Hernandez witnessed many sad moments and actions that left her feeling angry and disheartened. One particular moment during a discussion she had with a convention center supervisor irks her.
“They told me not to share about my experience at the convention center. To not damage [the company’s] image in any way,” she says.
While they have paid her overtime hours, she’s currently working with her union, SEIU Texas, to ensure her rights are protected from any retribution for speaking on her experience.
In the meantime, Hernandez is working to rebuild her trailer home which was heavily damaged by the hurricane. Her husband and 17-year-old daughter are still living there and awaiting assistance from FEMA.