More janitors fired in Minn. after immigration audit

Federal immigration authorities have identified a second large janitorial company operating in Minnesota that has hired workers who don't have proper documentation.

The union representing workers at Harvard Maintenance says the company is dismissing 240 janitors -- more than half its Twin Cities workforce.

Two years ago, more than 1,200 janitors at ABM, another large commercial cleaning company, lost their jobs after a similar immigration audit.

Maribel, 38, is one of the workers who will lose her job at Harvard Maintenance on Tuesday. She has cleaned a Bloomington office tower for two years.

Maribel is from Mexico, and has lived in Minnesota for 15 years. MPR News has agreed not to use her full name because she is in the country illegally and fears deportation.

Maribel earned $13.32 an hour and paid $30 a month toward her health insurance.

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In December, she received a letter from her employer explaining the Department of Homeland Security had sent a notice of suspect documents, and employees had 90 days to come up with valid documents to keep their jobs. Those 90 days are up.

"Some of the companies in Minnesota want to have desperate people working for low wages, and I just think that's unconscionable."

Representatives for Harvard Maintenance, a privately-owned company based in New York, declined to comment on the situation.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said in a statement it doesn't confirm or deny a possible ongoing investigation. A spokesman with ICE's regional office, Shawn Neudauer, said in the statement that his agency is charged with enforcing immigration and customs laws.

The janitors at Harvard Maintenance are represented by SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, local 26. Local president Javier Morillo says the audits of Harvard and ABM in 2009 don't fit with ICE's stated goal to "focus on egregious employers who not only knowingly hire unlawful workers but also exploit and/or harbor them."

"The janitors of the Twin Cities that are in the union, they're not depressing wages for janitors. They're the highest paid janitors," said Morillo. "There are janitorial companies that pay much, much less that actually depress wages that are not being targeted for ICE audits."

Morillo claims ICE targets companies that already check the paperwork of their employees. Employers who pay under the table wouldn't get caught in this net. That underground economy is where he says most of the former janitors will go.

SEIU has tracked the ABM janitors who lost their jobs in 2009. Morillo says hardly any of them have returned to their home countries.

Like Mirabel, former ABM janitor Jaime is here illegally, and asked that we not use his full name. He now picks up odd jobs in cleaning, construction, and dog grooming. Jaime estimates his earnings have dropped 60 percent since he lost his job at ABM.

"Say someone will offer me $10 to do a job, but then they'll just pay me $5. And they'll be very matter of fact and say, 'Well, that's what there is,'" said Jaime.

On the company's side of the equation, employers caught with undocumented immigrants on the payroll can face civil fines and possible criminal charges.

ABM signed a non-disclosure agreement with ICE, but Department of Homeland Security documents obtained by MPR News show ABM was fined $108,000 -- or about $85 for each janitor who was dismissed.

Although a non-disclosure agreement was in place, MPR obtained the document as part of a Freedom of Information Act Request.

ICE released the following statement: "Due to the circumstances of the individual agreements ICE negotiated with companies on the list, the list may only be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Obtaining this list through FOIA is necessary to ensure that the information contained in the list is properly redacted, based on ICE's aforementioned individually negotiated agreements with the companies."

A bipartisan bill introduced at the state Capitol would impose additional state fines on employers who violate federal immigration law. One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, says the bill is aimed at companies that pay substandard wages.

"The immigration problem is not caused by the people who are coming here, but by the employers. Some of the companies in Minnesota want to have desperate people working for low wages, and I just think that's unconscionable," said Scalze. "So to me, whatever I can do to counteract that, I will do."

Tough sanctions on employers, and recent high-profile audits at Chipotle Mexican Grill and other companies have put employers on notice that ICE is watching.

For Maribel, the Harvard janitor who is losing her job, her options to support her family are dwindling.

Her husband works in construction, which has been hard-hit by the economy. They've told their three children it may be time to go back to Mexico.

"But my son, they don't want go to Mexico. They say, 'We are citizens. We want to stay here,'" said Maribel.

Her 14-year-old son, who's a U.S. citizen, is planning to find a job.

The Harvard janitors will be dismissed in groups through the end of the month.

(MPR producer Carolina Astrain contributed to this report.)