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Window washer describes the job: ‘You’re your own boss when you’re up there’

Gonzalo Guzman, a window washer for more than 20 years in Chicago, said he once watched his uncle fall five stories and break his leg.

“This job — if you don’t pay attention all the time — it’s very dangerous,” he said, adding that he’s never fallen from his Genie chair. “Thank God.”

Guzman, 40, comes from a long line of family window washers, having at least a dozen cousins on the job right now at different companies across the city. He has worked at Service One Inc. for 13 years and is regularly assigned to clean the windows with one other man at 300 N. LaSalle, the towering 60-story, mixed-use building on the north bank of the Chicago River.

“I never finish [cleaning the building],” he said. “I start on the south side, go around to the east side, and the day I finish there, I start over … All year, I go around the building.”

Guzman, who lives in west suburban Franklin Park with his wife and two daughters, ages 12 and 16, estimated that he washes the windows for 35 floors every day, listening to Mexican Banda music while he cleans. His chair and harness are suspended by two 600-foot ropes and a safety line, hooked to anchors on the roof of the building. The bucket, brush and squeegee are hooked to his chair.

Gonzalo Guzman, 40, a window washer of more than 20 years, cleans a high-rise window in Chicago. | Photo provided by SEIU Local 1

He earns a base pay of $21.25 hourly (the rate can fluctuate depending on how much he cleans) and is represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1. After four weeks on strike, Guzman was one of the window washers represented by SEIU Local 1 who voted to ratify a new contract in July that included a 27 percent wage increase and doubled life insurance from $50,000 to $100,000. The union represents 260 window washers from 14 companies, with Corporate Cleaning Services and Service One Inc. being the largest of the group.

SEIU is among a group of labor unions with an ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader.

Guzman said he was only scared of the job for the first year, doing the sign of the cross every day before “the jump on the wall.” He was also scared for a while after watching his uncle fall five floors about 15 years ago. His uncle’s safety line prevented him from hitting the ground, but he broke his leg in the fall.

“I’m relaxed [when I’m up there],” Guzman said. “I look at the lake, the view, and I say I’m lucky because I live here and I do this job, that’s how I feel.”

He survives the winters by layering up, including wearing a mask, adding methanol to the water to stop it from freezing.

The spiders, which he said can be bigger than quarters, don’t bother him, but he “feels sad” when he finds dead birds.

What is Guzman’s favorite thing about being a window washer? The autonomy.

“You’re your own boss when you’re up there,” he said. “You make the decisions because it’s your life.”