Cleanliness is being undervalued EYE ON THE PIE Morton Marcus:

May 9, 2005

This column has been too glum recently. That is the result of observing what happens in the General Assembly where the many good things done (for example: a stiffer open alcohol container bill) are outweighed by the silliness (daylight-saving time).

Let's take a rest and praise some people who are doing something noble and important.

A coalition of clergy, civic groups and labor unions are trying to get higher wages and benefits for janitors in the Indianapolis area. Currently, most of these workers are paid $7 or less per hour. Many work part-time and usually have no health insurance, sick days, vacation days or other benefits.

The economics of the situation is clear. Firms have little use for many full-time janitors. The skills required for the job are minimal. Many persons who need work do not qualify for more advanced positions. Hence, it is easy for firms to offer low wages when the supply of workers is so abundant.

Yet one must ask, what is the value of the work performed? Is cleanliness next to godliness? How much is it worth to the corporate executive making more than $250,000 a year to have a clean office every day? What is the value to the firm of having the wastebaskets emptied every night, the toilets sanitized, the carpets vacuumed, the dust removed? What is it worth to you as a customer to do business with a firm that offers clean facilities?

The effort to secure better wages and benefits for those who keep our workplaces clean is important. It is a revival of the best aspects of the union movement that helped America become a great nation. The situation faced by janitors today is little different from the circumstances of miners and textile mill workers in the past.

Indiana is schizophrenic when it comes to unions. Many of the best-paid jobs in the state are unionized. Thousands of families owe their well-being to the diligence of unions. But there are strong anti-union forces that see our economic sluggishness as a result of the heavy presence of unions in many communities. The political influence of unions is also seen as a detriment to economic development. Unions are often depicted as organizations that were once progressive, but are now reactionary protectors of the status quo.

Whatever may be the case about unions in general, the situation with janitors should not be confused by these concerns. Our state and our nation need to pay people for the value of what they produce.

Higher wages for low-paid workers means more spending in the community. Those currently making large salaries spend more of their money outside the community than do lower-paid workers. Even the Social Security issue is involved in this matter. If we cut $10,000 a year from the salary of a person making $250,000 to raise janitors' wages, that $10,000 will be subject to Social Security taxes. Given the current $90,000 cap on income liable for Social Security taxes, that $10,000 today escapes such taxation.

We all have a stake in the efforts to see that janitors get paid for the value of their efforts. Perhaps that would be easier if janitors were called sanitary engineering specialists or cleanliness consultants. After all, if Shakespeare were around today, he might say, "A rose by some exotic name would bring a higher price."

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to mmarcus@ibj.com.
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