$15 minimum wage is mantra of janitors, lawmakers during Wilmington march

Cleaning workers protested for a higher minimum wage at Rodney Square Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Wilmington, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Cleaning workers protested for a higher minimum wage at Rodney Square Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Wilmington, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Chanting in English and Spanish, about 50 union janitors didn’t mince their words Thursday afternoon in downtown Wilmington.

“What do we want?” the members of the local branch of the Service Employees International Union called. They had gathered in Rodney Square, surrounded by many of the buildings they clean.

“Fifteen!’’ They shouted their desired hourly wage for their next contract. Their current one expires at the end of January.

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

The office cleaners carried Santa signs emblazoned with “$15 Now” as they marched through the windy December chill to the New Castle County government headquarters a few blocks away.

The service workers were joined by three Democratic state lawmakers sponsoring a bill to raise Delaware’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. It’s currently $9.25, but it took lots of arm-twisting by advocates in the final day of the 2018 legislative session for that to pass.

The $15-an-hour bill was introduced in May, but didn’t get a vote in either chamber before the legislature adjourned July 1.

Cleaning workers protested for a higher minimum wage at Rodney Square Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Wilmington, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

One of the office cleaners demonstrating Thursday was Tracy Thuo. For the last three years, she has provided custodial services to law and accounting firms in a Market Street high-rise.

“I come in and vacuum. I dust. I empty their trash and make sure their desk, their area, where they work is comfortable to them,” Thuo said.

“I like to make it so they feel like they are at home. Everybody knows me. They know me by name,” she added. “I know them by name with the years I have acquired to do that.”

But Thuo, 58, said she struggles to get by with her salary of about $13 an hour. A boost to $15 would certainly help, she said.

Tracey Thuo, 58, says an increase to $15 an hour as an office cleaner will assist in her struggle to pay rent and other expenses. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“It would make my life much easier,’’ she said. “It’s very hard out here. You can’t live on just what you get now. I have an apartment. Rent has doubled.”

Thuo’s local union, 32BJ, cleans buildings for commercial contractors like ABM Elite, Arthur Jackson, CSI and Bravo, whose Wilmington-area tenants include AstraZeneca, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. The local has about 800 members in New Castle County who first unionized nine years ago.

Union official Daisy Cruz said her members provide a valuable service for Delaware’s corporate world and need to be able to provide for their families.

“We know right now that single parents with just one child need to make at least $27 an hour just to meet their basic needs,’’ Cruz said during the march. “These workers are ready to fight for $15.”

While Cruz spoke, the marchers chanted, “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

Delaware neighbors New Jersey and Maryland are on a graduated track to a $15 minimum wage by 2025. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage remains at $7.25, the lowest allowed by federal law, but the state Senate recently approved a measure to increase it to $9.50 by 2022.

State Rep. Gerald Brady of Wilmington said he supports the union cleaners and that they are the tip of the iceberg of the low-wage economy. He agreed the legislation faces a “tough’’ road in the General Assembly, but said some retailers have begun paying $15 an hour, so the bill has a chance.

Sen. Darius Brown of Wilmington agreed. Brown said he’s “an optimist” and hopes to work with the private sector and nonprofits to “look at how we can provide dignity and upward mobility to people living at the poverty line or below the poverty line, currently making $9.25 an hour.”

State Rep. John Kowalko of Newark said he thinks there’s a momentum among the public to push employers to help “working people who are hurting” make ends meet.

“Why should we have the Chamber of Commerce and the corporate structure hold these people hostage for their efforts?” Kowalko said. “That’s wrong. As far as I’m concerned, it’s immoral.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal