How America’s Biggest Theater Chains Are Exploiting Their Janitors

by Lionel Casey

Every night, after the last display ended on the AMC theater in Santa Monica, Maria Alvarez arrived at work.

She and her husband had the key to let themselves in. It was after midnight, and the building changed into empty. Together, they cleaned all seven auditoriums. They vacuumed the carpets and mopped the floors. They wiped clean the lavatories and restocked the restroom paper. They polished the escalators and scrubbed the glass concession instances.

They finished after dawn. On weekends, while the theaters had been dirty, they stayed later till nine:30 a.M. Alvarez worked seven days a week. There had been no days off, no sick days, no holidays.

“The day my son handed away, I requested for the day, and that they did no longer want to give it to me,” she said thru tears during the exertions hearing in 2017.

Alvarez wiped clean theaters for two and a 1/2 years. She became paid $300 per week — or approximately $5 an hour.

Filmmakers often communicate the magic that could occur simplest in a film theater. As ticket income has stagnated and Netflix has taken off, the industry has become more and more protective of the “theatrical enjoy.”

But retaining that revel in relies upon employees like Alvarez, who’s grossly underpaid, overworked, and effortlessly expendable.

The predominant chains — AMC, Regal Entertainment, and Cinemark — do not rely upon teenage ushers to hold the floors from getting sticky. Instead, they have become a large immigrant workforce, often hired through layers of subcontractors. That arrangement makes it nearly not possible for janitors to make a residing salary.

Alvarez was given hurt on the task, and a health practitioner recommended a lighter workload. When she made that request in April 2015, she was fired. The following yr, she filed a California Labor Commission declaration for unpaid wages, consisting of overtime. The listening officer offered her $80,000 in again pay and penalties. But Alvarez could not accumulate. She did now not paintings at once for AMC or its janitorial contractor, ACS Enterprises, which shielded them from liability. Instead, she labored for a couple — Alfredo Dominguez and Caritina Diaz — who had no longer shown as much as the listening.

Even Dominguez and Diaz didn’t don’t forget her as an actual employee. In their minds, she was a contractor of AMC Theatres. AMC and ACS did ship an attorney to fight her wage declare. In the quit, the businesses agreed to pay her $three 500 to head away.

Over the ultimate eight months, Variety has investigated salary court cases from film theater janitors throughout the country, reviewing class-motion court cases, nation hard work fee statistics, and investigations with the aid of the U.S. Department of Labor. A clear pattern emerged: AMC and other theater chains maintain their charges by relying on janitorial contractors that use subcontracted exertions. Those janitors usually don’t have any salary or task protections, toiling on one of the lowest rungs of the U.S. Hard work marketplace.

It is customary for janitors to work all night lengthy. Some people informed Variety that they had seen parents deliver their young youngsters to work, allowing them to sleep on the floor or within the theater seats. A few janitors use leaf blowers to clean popcorn and wrappers out of the aisles to make the job cross faster. But the blowers depart dust at the speakers and monitors, and most theaters have banned them. Instead, janitors typically move row by row with backpack vacuums. They wipe the salt off the seats and smooth soda stains out of the cup holders.

“This is so similar to agricultural people. They’re walking down rows the way agricultural workers do,” says Brandt Milstein, a lawyer who filed a class-motion match in Colorado on behalf of Cinemark janitors.

The theater chains are in large part immune from legal repercussions. Because they do no longer hire janitors without delay, they’re typically excluded from magnificence-action salary cases. But a few in the janitorial business say the chains are aware of what’s happening and ultimately accountable.

“The theater groups are top-notch reasonably-priced,” says one janitorial agency executive who did no longer needs to be identified to defend commercial enterprise relationships. “A lot of those guys, they don’t care if you use slave hard work.”

Based in Leawood, Kan., AMC is the USA’s biggest theater chain, with 637 places. According to interviews and files acquired utilizing Variety, AMC appointed more than 100 companies to offer janitorial carriers. But numerous years ago, the corporation followed a “countrywide accomplice version,” ultimately cutting down to just pages national: ACS, based totally in Pomona, Calif., and KBM, primarily based in Hendersonville, Tenn.

The chain leveraged its length and its pricing strength to save cash. Brian Mullady became AMC’s director of procurement at the time. On his LinkedIn resume, he says the consolidation stored the organization $eight million 12 months — or 26% of its janitorial expenses.

Regal, the second one-biggest U.S. Chain with 558 places, tried a similar consolidation; however, it found that the provider companies couldn’t nicely manipulate their employees, says Christopher Blevins, a former V.P. of operations for the corporation. Instead, Regal has 15 district managers who generally are seeking aggressive bids for the janitorial provider.

According to an email acquired using Variety, AMC does no longer takes bids. Instead, it tells its countrywide contractors what it’s going to pay based on internal components. Mullady, who did not respond to requests for comment, sent the email in 2016.

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