Things That Matter

Central American Custodians Fought for Fair Wages at George Mason University, Later They Were Laid Off With Little Warning

Since the pandemic put a spotlight on essential workers, people have been talking about how unsung heroes like food service workers, domestic workers and custodians are the hidden pillars of society.

So much of what we take for granted is due to the hard work of men and women — many of whom are immigrants —who put in long hours.

But despite many institutions’ public lip service towards essential workers, behind-the-scenes organizations are still letting them down.

One of those organizations is George Mason University (GMU), which recently laid off 68 custodians — mostly Central American women — a few months after they demanded safer working conditions and livable wages.

GMU faculty member Bethany Letiecq — who is an associate professor of Human Development and Family Science and a co-founder of the GMU Coalition for Worker Rights — brought the story to light via a GoFundMe page she created to raise money for the now-unemployed custodians.

“This past year+, custodians who worked throughout the pandemic have been fighting for better wages, adequate PPE, and job protections,” Letiecq wrote on the GoFundMe page. “After filing numerous unfair labor practice claims with the National Labor Relations Board (for wage theft, intimidation, and retaliation), the custodians who are nearly all Central American women finally won better wages (from $9/hr to up to $15/hr).”

According to reporting by NBC Washington News 4 published in August, these women did not only experience low wages and unsafe work conditions, but they also experienced wage theft at the hands of the cleaning contractor that works with GMU. The women were often paid late or had their paychecks bounced. Sometimes, they would work back-to-back 16 hour workdays with no overtime pay.

According to the GoFundMe, “custodians were told some two weeks before Christmas they will not be rehired January 1 when Mason brings in a new contractor.”

“Please help me raise at least $1000 per worker during this holiday season to help them pay rent and provide for their children until they can secure new jobs,” wrote Letiecq.

So far, the campaign has raised $20,404 of their $68,000 goal. Donors are heading to the GoFundMe page to voice their support for the laid-off custodians. “Custodial workers are essential members of our community, helping to keep us safe,” wrote donor Catherine Saunders. “They deserve safe working conditions, fair compensation, and job security.”

Another donor wrote: “I donated because they should not be punished for fighting for a living wage by losing their contract. It’s hard to believe this is anything other than that. I’ll certainly remember this the next time GMU asks me for money.”

Another pointed out the hypocrisy of organizations that praise essential workers in public while short-changing them behind closed doors: “It’s easy to praise essential workers, but not so easy to treat them with the respect and fair compensation they deserve. These custodians deserve far better from Mason.”

In addition to running the GoFundMe campaign for the custodians, Letiecq is a co-founder of the George Mason University Coalition for Worker Rights. As Letiecq wrote in the GoFundMe campaign: “Some of the workers have provided essential services for Mason for over a decade. Now they face great uncertainty.”

To donate, visit GoFundMe.

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