August 8, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – This week, low-wage cleaners fighting to keep their jobs at posh WeWork co-working outlets around town, learned that they will first need to satisfy a new English language requirement before any of them are hired back.
“I’ve had my job at WeWork for a year and speaking English has never been required,” said Filomena Santelises. “I’ve worked hard and never had a problem, but now I’m worried that I’ll lose my job based on this new requirement.”
Santelises and about 150 other contracted office cleaners working for Commercial Business Maintenance [CBM] — most of them Latino immigrants — have spent the entire summer waging a pitched battle for better wages and benefits with the help of SEIU 32BJ.
CBM placed all of the workers’ jobs in jeopardy when it terminated its contract with WeWork effective August 23. This week, WeWork announced that it has decided to cut out third party contractors, and start directly hiring its own cleaning crews at hourly wages equal to, or better than fast food workers.
The enhanced wages, along with healthcare benefits and a 401K plan, come with an important hitch, however. In an August 6, letter WeWork’s head of community relations informed SEIU 32BJ Vice-President Shirley Aldebol that newly-created cleaning positions come with both fancy new titles and an “English fluency” requirement.
“Adding English fluency in the requirements for a job that never required it before is discriminatory,” Aldebol shot back in a statement. “It appears that WeWork only wants to welcome you into their community if you speak English.”
WeWork has since knocked off the edges of its English language requirement – stipulating only an "ability to communicate in English." But cleaning crews who never before had to worry about any such barriers to employment, still fear that their English language skills will be used against them.
“The cleaning crew is almost entirely Latino immigrants whose first language is Spanish,” 32BJ Spokesperson Rachel Cohen told LaborPress. “WeWork has changed the wording in their job posting to an 'ability to communicate in English,' which is certainly better than the previous requirement that applicants be 'fluent.' But the CBM cleaners are still worried that this requirement could be used as an excuse by WeWork not to hire many of them when the company takes the work in house.”
And those fears appear to be well-founded. In an email to LaborPress, a spokesperson for WeWork said,
“We are asking for applicants to have some English language skills because it is a member facing position.”
WeWork also referred to its members' expereince when it told 32BJ, that "from a time that predated any engagement in our cleaning situation by your organization, we have been evaluating the best way to provide an unrivaled experience for the members of our WeWork Community.”
For WeWork, that apparently means office cleaners who work for them must speak a specific language. In Israel, for instance, where WeWork also has a presence — similar cleaning crews are required to speak Hebrew, according to a spokesperson.
Some WeWork cleaners now facing unemployment in New York City due to the language mandate, have been working at the company for nearly two years, and they don't think the bosses are being fair.
“It seems completely unfair to require me to pass an English test to keep doing a job that I have been doing,” said Griselda Ferrer. “I can’t afford to lose this position.”
WeWork spaces aren't cheap. A WeWork desk in DUMBO will cost you $500 a month.