Moving On Up

Photo by Nick SchouOfelia Olvera is trying to get some sleep on her couch. But it's 3 p.m., and her five kids in the family's cramped one-bedroom apartment make afternoon naps impossible.

When they first arrived from Guanajuato, Mexico, 14 years ago, Olvera and her husband picked fruit in California's Central Valley. Her husband eventually got a job as a gardener; she found work as a janitor. Every Sunday through Thursday for the past five years—from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.—Olvera, 39, has cleaned the same downtown Irvine office building at the intersection of Von Karman Avenue and Michelson Drive.

Her husband goes to bed early so he can pick her up in the middle of the night. When they get home at 3 a.m., Olvera searches for space to sleep—usually the couch or, if that's occupied, on a chair in the kitchen. She can doze for only a few hours, though: her husband leaves the Santa Ana apartment for work at 5:30 a.m.; an hour later, she cooks breakfast for the kids.

She often wishes they had an extra room, but this one-bedroom is a major improvement over Olvera's last home: a garage behind a small house in Santa Ana being rented by friends. Olvera's family borrowed the friends' kitchen and tiptoed in at night to use their bathroom.

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The Olvera family moved out of the garage and into the one-bedroom apartment three years ago, when Olvera became a union member and her salary increased from $5.75 per hour—the state minimum at the time—to $7.45. Along with about 2,000 other janitors in Orange County, Olvera joined Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) during a six-month organizing campaign.

In January 2000, without so much as a daylong strike, the union ended its campaign with an unprecedented victory: a three-year contract providing a moderate wage increase and individual health insurance for its members. That contract expires in April.

Olvera, who is a volunteer activist with Local 1877, is doing everything she can to help organize fellow janitors to win a new contract that will provide family medical insurance and—just as important—a pay increase that would allow her and other unionized janitors to afford two-bedroom apartments.

Good luck, says Dick Davis, a labor consultant who represents several cleaning contractors who employ Orange County's unionized janitors. Local janitors may suffer from poor living conditions and lower pay than their counterparts in Los Angeles and other cities, Davis says, but that's because those janitors are better organized.

"LA has been organized for 40 or 50 years, and Orange County is on its first contract," he said. "Orange County is not a big union area."

He did sympathize with the janitors' desire to improve their living conditions. "We're not talking about millionaires here; we're talking about janitors," he said. "Of course, we think that, in an ideal world, people should live wherever they want to live and have family medical insurance. But who is going to pay for that? These costs are going to be passed on to someone, and that will be the small tenant."

Like Taco Bell?

"Obviously there are a lot of large tenants, but there are a lot who aren't large," Davis said. "We're not talking about giant companies like Exxon/Mobile or Standard Oil."

We aren't?

"Of course, there are one or two big tenants like those companies—well, more than just one or two, obviously—but a lot are small tenants like law firms and brokerage houses," Davis insisted. "But even the Standard Oils of the world aren't having good times. Do you know anyone who is having good times?"

Certainly not unionized janitors such as Olvera. Although they mostly clean buildings in Irvine, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, few of them can afford to live in those cities; 70 percent reside in Santa Ana.

Crystal Zermeno, a researcher with Local 1877, has helped survey Orange County janitors about how they've fared since winning a union contract three years ago. She said Olvera's cramped living situation is typical.

"The housing situation hasn't changed dramatically for these people," she said. "At least now they can actually pay their rent, but at $7.45 per hour, you still find a lot of big families living in one-bedroom apartments or up to eight people living in a two-bedroom apartment. Shared housing is the only way many families can afford to live."

According to a study by the Orange County Community Indicators Project—a joint project of the county of Orange, the Orange County Business Council, and the Children and Families Commission of Orange County—fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,046 per month. The combined hourly wage per household needed to afford such accommodations is $21.10—well beyond the reach of two parents (such as Olvera and her husband) who each earn less than $10 per hour.

"I'd like to be able to rent an apartment with two rooms," Olvera said. "But then I wouldn't be able to buy food during the last half of the month." If they're lucky, Olvera said, she's able to treat her children to a monthly meal at McDonald's. "They keep telling me they want to go to Disneyland," she added. "But I have to tell them we can't afford it. What kind of future is this?"

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