The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. was more than symbolic this week with the introduction of legislation aimed at protecting Washington state’s sanitation workers.
With the civil rights leader’s eponymous holiday recognized Monday, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, appealed to King’s legacy when calling for increased workplace safety for commercial janitors. King was supporting a strike by Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 when he was assassinated on a balcony near his motel room.
“Even now, in 2018, sanitation is still a dangerous profession,” Keiser said in a press release. “As we honor the legacy of Dr. King, we all must remember that the struggle for safe working conditions continues.”
Keiser is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 6227, which would require the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries to conduct a study by the end of 2022 that examines the greatest safety and health risks associated commercial sanitation work.
The bill was inspired by a department work group’s conclusion that janitors are at greater risk of injury than service workers in other industries. The Janitorial Workload, Health, and Safety Work Group found that females, first-year workers and those with a first language other than English filed more compensable claims than all other demographics.
The work group recommended that training and access to safety information be improved, along with identification of safety issues.
SB 6227 received a public hearing in the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee on Monday afternoon.
Lulu Carillo is a janitor at Valley Medical Center in Redmond. At the hearing she said she is encouraged to skip her breaks at work. Carillo said she was diagnosed in 2016 with a growing hernia that required a $70,000 surgery.
Carillo is a member of Service Employees International Union Local 6, the Seattle branch of a union that negotiates compensation and working conditions for service workers. Local 6 Political Director Mauricio Ayon said the Seattle branch represents over 6,000 janitors, security officers and airport workers.
Another member, Kim Lee, said she and many others wouldn’t choose a life in sanitation work if not for Local 6’s efforts in fighting for their safety. Lee works for Pacific Building Services in Tacoma and said she was recently admitted to the hospital because her employer was unable to provide her the safety equipment necessary to mitigate the effects of cleaning chemicals.
“I dance with a mop in 19 full bathrooms every night,” Lee said. “It’s really frustrating when you have to go to work every night knowing you can’t get any help.”
The public testimonies of Lee and others moved committee members to issue statements of their own.
“I’m hoping that we can move a little more quickly in terms of trying to get some standards in this industry to protect these workers,” said Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, who is also a sponsor of Keiser’s bill. “These workers have a right to work in dignified conditions.”
Keiser, who serves as chair of the committee, echoed Conway’s statements and said she was moved by the personal testimonies of those in support of the bill.
“I am proud to sponsor legislation that provides safeguards to our sanitation workers,” the senator said. “The struggle for social justice never ends, and here we are, still trying to make some progress.”
This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.