Mihalopoulos: Firm sued for treating O’Hare janitors like dirt
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Four years after Mayor Rahm Emanuel shrugged off critics and signed a $99.4 million deal with a janitorial firm to clean O’Hare Airport, the contractor has agreed to pay nearly $850,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by employees at the airport, court records show.
The federal civil suit filed last year accused United Maintenance Co. Inc. — led by the former Chicago cop Richard Simon — of stiffing low-wage airport janitors. The employees alleged United Maintenance forced them to start work early, end their shifts late and work through lunch periods without extra pay.
Under the settlement, United Maintenance will pay $845,797.15 into a fund for more than 1,000 O’Hare janitors, with $325,000 of that going to lawyers for the plaintiffs, according to court documents.
Simon and the lawyers for the workers declined to comment Tuesday on the settlement, which U.S. District Judge Robert Dow approved last Wednesday.
But to hear the lawyers describe the general work conditions at O’Hare, their clients’ jobs at Chicago’s main international airport sound like the present-day equivalent of laboring in an Industrial Age steel mill, coal mine or textile plant.
The case involving United Maintenance is just one of several cases Chicago lawyers Glen Dunn and Jeff Brown have brought on behalf of workers for companies doing business at O’Hare.
“Every single contractor there [at O’Hare] is violating the wage law,” Dunn said. “Many of the workers are immigrants. Many do not speak English. They’re just happy to have a job in the United States. These people are at the bottom end of society.”
On Friday, organized-labor leaders held a news conference where workers said they were being treated like, well, crap at O’Hare. The wage-theft allegations have become a club in labor’s stalled effort to wrest control of the deep money pot at Chicago’s airports from the mayor’s office.
Dunn and Brown have been slugging it out in court for years with various companies that enjoy taxpayer-funded contracts and city-approved concessions at the airport.
Similar federal lawsuits were settled with a United Maintenance subcontractor on the current O’Hare deal and with a company that runs fast-food outlets at the airport, records show.
Other wage-theft suits that are pending now were filed by workers responsible for “draining and recharging lavatory waste (known as ‘blue water’) from airplanes” and by employees of the janitorial contractor United Maintenance replaced at O’Hare’s terminals in 2012.
Simon and Chicago-based Invision Capital I LP each own 50 percent of United Maintenance, which is headquartered in the South Loop, city records show.
Simon neglected to immediately tell the city he had sold half the company while seeking the O’Hare deal. Emanuel administration officials said they could have nixed the deal for that reason, but decided to go ahead with it anyway, despite criticism from labor and its City Council allies.
Through Sept. 2, the city had paid United Maintenance more than $75 million under the five-year deal that expires next year.
Simon and his companies long have been campaign contributors to many politicians, including Ald. Ed Burke (14th) and Cook County Democratic boss Joe Berrios.
In the case of the janitors, United Maintenance did not admit wrongdoing but settled “in an effort to avoid the additional time, expense and distraction associated with this type of protracted litigation,” a company spokeswoman said.
“This settlement allows us to move on so that we can focus on continuing to provide the exceptional service people have become accustomed to at O’Hare,” said the spokeswoman, Gabrielle Weiss.
I’ll agree the bathrooms looked clean to me the last time I was at O’Hare.
Still, Emanuel aides should aggressively check out the allegations of wage theft. They must ensure taxpayer dollars aren’t used to profit from today’s version of a sweatshop at Chicago’s gateway to the world.