‘Thrown out like the trash’: Twitter’s janitorial staff are fighting back after they were abruptly fired
On 19 December, two hours after leaving her job at Twitter’s office in New York City, Lucy Calderon received a text message telling her that she would no longer be working there, effective immediately.
The single mother from The Bronx and a dozen of her fellow janitorial workers lost their jobs days before Christmas after Twitter abruptly canceled a contract with their employer, joining what workers have called the “other” wave of tech layoffs impacting tens of thousands of workers in recent months.
Elon Musk’s sweeping layoffs during his chaotic tenure at the platform have reached janitorial staff at his company’s San Francisco and New York offices, leaving lower-paid workers scrambling in cities with skyrocketing living costs.
The workers could lose their union-provided health insurance coverage – on which the workers and their families have relied for their medication and medical care – if no action is taken by the end of January.
“It was shocking,” Ms Calderon told The Independent. “I had just left my work – what happened in two hours?”
Flagship Facility Services served as the janitorial service for Twitter’s office in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan. A termination notice from Twitter to the company was forwarded to workers without any explanation why the contract was terminated, according to a notice reviewed by The Independent.
Joined by a crowd of union leaders and supporters, laid-off workers rallied in the rain outside Twitter’s office on West 17th Street on 25 January to demand that the company reinstate their jobs.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said Laureta Gjoni, a single mother with a six-year-old and one-year-old. She has cleaned the building for eight years, as long as Twitter has been in the property.
“We take care of these buildings more than our houses,” she told The Independent. “These jobs are our life, for our family, for our kids. The insurance from the union, that’s our life, too.”
Yoeni Bylorenzo, 29-year-old single father with a three-year-old daughter, said the workers were deemed “essential” at the onset of the pandemic but have now been “thrown out like trash”.
“Twitter’s got to remember the stuff that we went through with the pandemic. We were still coming, every day,” he told The Independent. “Thank God I have a little savings, but it’s really not going to go that long. Unemployment [payments] are not giving much, too.”
In brief remarks to the rally crowd, New York City Councilmember Erik Bottcher condemned the layoffs as a “horrible, indefensible action by Twitter against these workers who deserve to keep their job”.
Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents the workers, is working to determine whether Twitter’s actions violate the Displaced Building Service Workers Protection Act.
The law was first enacted in 2002 to protect workers who are outsourced by building owners or managers to a third-party contractor. When one contractor takes over the work of another in the same building, those workers must be rehired by the new contractor and cannot be terminated without cause, according to the law.
Workers can then sue the building owners to get their jobs back and receive back pay and damages.
A spokesperson for the union told The Independent the union is “still trying to figure out what exactly is going on in the building” to determine whether Twitter hired cleaning staff after laying off workers, which would violate the law.
“If cleaning is taking place in the building, that would be a violation of the Displaced Building Service Workers Protection Act. But we haven’t been able to verify anything yet,” according to the union’s statement to The Independent.
SEIU’s New York City chapter represents more than 20,000 commercial office cleaners in the city.
The union’s Local 87 chapter in San Francisco – where 20 unionised cleaning workers at the company’s headquarters were abruptly laid off last month – represents 5,000 janitors in the city.
Those layoffs also could violate city law that stipulates that new agreements for cleaning services must include retaining existing workers after switching contractors.
Janitors also reported some conference rooms inside the San Francisco office were turned into makeshift bedrooms or nurseries, prompting investigations from the city’s Department of Building Inspection and the city attorney’s office.
The Independent has requested comment from the offices of the New York Attorney General and New York City’s law department.
The Independent also has requested comment from Twitter, which has largely eliminated its communications department.
After Mr Musk acquired the influential platform in October, he fired its board of directors and top executives and began laying off 3,700 employees, roughly cutting the company’s workforce by half.
On 19 December, Twitter disconnected cleaning workers’ ID access after the company notified the New York cleaning staff’s employer that their contract would immediately be terminated, Ms Calderon told The Independent.
Confused and terrified workers called her looking for answers, facing the holidays without an income and bracing for the loss of their employer-connected health insurance for themselves and their families.
“Those are the things that are in my head every single day – how are they gonna do it? I don’t even know how I’m gonna do it. How are they gonna do it?” Ms Calderon told The Independent in a phone interview. “I’m in the same corner as them and I have to be there for them.”
“Twitter’s decision to cancel the cleaning contract … has upended the lives of these dedicated cleaners, many of whom have worked at this location since Twitter moved in seven years ago,” according to a statement from union vice president Denis Johnston to The Independent.
“They put their lives on the line to keep workers and the public safe throughout the pandemic and are essential to the city’s economic recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic,” he added. “These union members and their families now face extreme hardship because of the loss of their good paying jobs with quality health insurance.”.
As the end of January approaches, Ms Calderon and other laid-off workers told The Independent that they plan to keep fighting alongside the union to get their jobs back.
“It was very shocking – no reason, no notice, no nothing,” she said. “I don’t think we deserve that.”