Broadway cleaners have kept the Great White Way open — and now they’re fighting for wage increases

Broadway cleaners have kept the Great White Way open — and now they're fighting for wage increases

About 230 cleaners from four companies — Jujamcyn, Nederlander, Shubert and Circle in the Square, which collectively manage 16 Broadway theaters — are being represented by Local 32BJ in the contract negotiation. The last four-year agreement was bargained in 2016, and the current one — which was extended twice during the pandemic — will end on June 26th.

“The critical role Broadway theater cleaners play in creating a safe and clean environment for theatergoers has become even more essential during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Denis Johnston, executive vice president of 32BJ SEIU. “Since the onset of the pandemic, Broadway cleaners have had a heightened responsibility, along with their regular duties, to keep theaters clean and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.”

The Broadway League, the trade organization that represents theater owners and operators, did not respond to emails for comment.

Workers say that between the uncertainty around COVID and the rising cost of living due to inflation, it is vital that they get some recognition for what they describe as their invisible labor. In addition to wage increases, they’re also asking to improve their retirement funds and maintain 100% employer-paid healthcare coverage with no premium sharing.

“We’ve realized over the pandemic [our health care] is not something that is negotiable, we need to be able to rely on our health insurance to take care of us when we need it,” Martha Aristizabal, who has worked for the Shubert company for over 12 years, said in Spanish via a translator “We know the economic situation in this country is not great for theaters, but also inflation has made our take-home wages not sustainable.”

Aristizabal, 56, who spoke to Gothamist from a closet inside the Ambassador Theater while on a work break, went on unemployment in 2020 when the theaters shut down to curtail the spread of COVID-19. She supplemented her benefits by delivering groceries for Amazon a few days a week.

Since the Ambassador resumed performances of “Chicago” in August 2021, Aristizabal has been working two shifts, making $20 an hour. In the mornings she works as a custodian, cleaning backstage spaces and hallways. In the evenings she acts as a manager’s assistant, helping people to their seats and the bathrooms, and making sure they have their masks on.

She credited theater management for giving employees plenty of training on COVID protocols, which are still in use today. But she said she still encountered hundreds of theater-goers a day, and it has been “challenging” to make sure people wear their masks throughout the shows.

“We live in a constant fear, because the pandemic isn’t over for us,” she said. “We go into work everyday and see people getting sick: not just in the outside world, also our coworkers. And the company does a good job of informing us when people get sick and making sure that they isolate, but it’s a constant fear that we live in. So that’s why we need wage increases that reflect the kind of stress and anxiety we live in day-to-day.”

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