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joanna weiss

Honor American Dream-builders today — with healthcare, hours

There was a lot of talk at the GOP convention about the mechanics of the American Dream, the struggling immigrant workers in various politicians’ pasts. Marco Rubio waxed on about his Cuban parents, who worked low-wage jobs, late into the night, so their son could achieve more.

We didn’t hear so much about immigrant workers today. So here is someone to consider: Maria Elena Lora, 52, a legal immigrant from Colombia, now living in Revere. In her native country, which she fled because of violence, she held a master’s degree in special education and worked with preschool kids who had Down syndrome and autism. In Massachusetts, she cleans offices.

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She works Mondays through Fridays, from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., for $16.10 an hour, at a Cambridge building that houses Microsoft and InterSystems. Each night, she cleans 79 offices and five conference rooms, hauls out heavy trash and recycling, vacuums with a large machine that’s mounted on her back, dusts in high places, scrubs glass windows and doors. On Fridays, she cleans refrigerators. She doesn’t drink much water during her shifts because she’d have to keep running to the bathroom, wasting precious time, because she only has five hours to finish all that work.

Lora also serves on the bargaining committee of SEIU 615, the janitors’ union that represents about 14,000 office cleaners. The union has just begun contract negotations with an association of cleaning companies that provide janitors to businesses across New England (including the Globe). One of the workers’ biggest demands is the chance for more members to work full-time — or at least to get to 30 hours a week, which would trigger health benefits.

About two-thirds of union members now work fewer than 30 hours, and a large portion of those part-timers work just a few hours shy of the magic number. According to their last contract, signed in 2007, they are supposed to pick up hours when colleagues retire or resign.

Largely, that hasn’t happened. The contractors blame the economy. Matt Ellis, a spokesman for the cleaning companies, notes that attrition has been far lower than expected, since no one wants to give up a relatively well-paying job.

But the union has gotten other answers, too. After a part-time employee at the Fidelity building at 245 Summer Street was fired, the contractor wanted to give those hours to part-timers. The building manager said no: to keep its LEED certification, the building needed to “minimize energy consumption during the night.” (A Fidelity spokesman said the company wouldn’t comment, since this was an issue with the vendor of a vendor.)

If you don’t offer health care, you’re ultimately kicking the cost to taxpayers.

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The union points out that, in other cities, plenty of janitors in other cities work from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. — and that many buildings turn off their heating and cooling systems at night, so it’s just a matter of turning on lights.

I’ll add this: Really? Blaming it on the environment?

Yes, this is an uncertain economy, and companies have to watch the bottom line. But if you don’t offer health care, you’re ultimately kicking the cost to taxpayers. Lora injured her shoulder at work and needed surgery. MassHealth paid, though she had trouble finding a doctor who would accept the public funds.

Lora still wants insurance of her own, and more hours, so she can contribute more to the living expenses her family shares. Her son just returned from military service in Afghanistan, and wants to study auto mechanics. Her goal is precisely the same as the one Rubio’s parents had.

“I am working very hard to make sure my children fulfill their dreams,” she told me through a translator. “If they do, then I will feel satisfied.”

It’s the same for Filipa Ramos, 61, who emigrated from Portugal in 2003, takes care of her 2-year-old granddaughter durng the day, and cleans 109 offices and six conference rooms every night at the Seaport World Trade Center. She takes home $1,800 a month. Her rent in Roxbury is $1,250. Her daughter serves in the Army Reserves. If she could work full-time, she told me through a translator, she would set up a college fund for her granddaughter.

In an era of bloated executive salaries — after a convention where a lot of lip service was given to dream-building and union-bashing and keeping people off the public dole — it’s worth considering our priorities. If good fortune indeed trickles down, shouldn’t it trickle down to these women, too?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follower her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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