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A Tale Of Two Janitors

Custodians' history reveals the emergence of the 'precariat' over the last generation

Here’s a startling story for Labor Day. The New York Times reports on the fates of two janitors, and what it says about capitalism in our time. Marta Ramos is a janitor at Apple’s headquarters. Gail Evans held the same job in the 1980s at Eastman Kodak. Excerpt:

In the 35 years between their jobs as janitors, corporations across America have flocked to a new management theory: Focus on core competence and outsource the rest. The approach has made companies more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders. It has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.

The $16.60 per hour Ms. Ramos earns as a janitor at Apple works out to about the same in inflation-adjusted terms as what Ms. Evans earned 35 years ago. But that’s where the similarities end.

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Ms. Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies. Ms. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.

They both spent a lot of time cleaning floors. The difference is, for Ms. Ramos, that work is also a ceiling.


Phil Harnden was coming out of the Navy in 1970 when he applied for a job at Kodak, and soon was operating a forklift in a warehouse. He made $3 an hour, equivalent to $20 an hour today adjusted for inflation. That is roughly what an entry-level contracting job testing software pays.

The difference between the two gigs, aside from the absence of heavy machinery in Apple’s sleek offices, is the sense of permanence. Mr. Harnden put in 16 years operating forklifts before he left in 1986 to move to Florida. When he returned 10 years later, he was quickly rehired and even kept his seniority benefits.

In interviews, tech industry contractors in Silicon Valley describe a culture of transience. They can end up commuting to a different office park that houses a new company every few months; in many cases 18 months is the maximum a contractor is allowed to spend at one company.

“I would rather have stability,” said Christopher Kohl, 29, who has worked as a contractor at several Silicon Valley companies, including a stint doing quality assurance on Apple Maps. “It’s stressful to find a new job every 12 to 18 months.”


As you drive around Rochester, the role of Eastman Kodak in the city is evident everywhere, in the Kodak Tower that looms over the center of town, in the Eastman Theater on Main Street, and in the hulking buildings and empty parking lots of the manufacturing center known as Kodak Park.

In reading the company’s old annual reports, you get a sense that its executives thought of the jobs created and the wages paid as a source of pride and achievement. On the first page of most years’ annual reports was an accounting of how many employees the company had in the United States and worldwide, and the total pay and benefits they received.

Apple, with a spaceship-like campus about to open, looms large over Cupertino in its own way, accounting for something like 40 percent of the jobs in the city, and investing $70 million in local environmental and infrastructure upgrades. It is no middle-class enclave; the median home price is $1.9 million.

“We definitely feel a sense of pride to be the home of Apple,” said Savita Vaidhyanathan, the mayor of Cupertino. “But they consider themselves a global company, not necessarily a Cupertino company.” She said she has never met Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive. “We would have a hard time getting an audience with anybody beyond upper-middle management,” she said.

Read the whole thing.

I have a predisposition to see Silicon Valley giants as villains, mostly, I think, because they give the impression of having immense self-regard. But that’s my prejudice. To be fair to Apple, how are things at Eastman Kodak these days? It went bankrupt a few years ago, but has now emerged, much smaller. It’s simply not fair to blame this entirely on corporate greed. There have been massive structural changes in the economy over the past few decades, as we all know.

What’s the solution? I don’t know, but I do know that the leader who figures this out is going to own the next era in US politics. One thing I’d like to see: economics become an issue for religious and social conservatives. Economics doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m going to have to work to overcome that somehow. “I would rather have stability,” said the young contractor who has to find a new job every year, year and a half. How is that man ever supposed to be able to marry and start a family?

If this isn’t an issue for religious and social conservatives, what is?

UPDATE: Reader Axxr:

For reference, I’m an experienced mid-late career white collar worker in senior management. I started out of college at the white collar entry level in the early ’90s.

I have been with my current company for two years. That is the longest I’ve ever been with a single company; in general, my resume is a long list of one-year stints of increasing seniority.

I’ve lived on both coasts and in the midwest, in just about every major American city. Not by choice—but because that’s where career took me. You’re either climbing (and moving) or you’re out on your ear.

I got married midway through, but the stress of career and location moves destroyed the marriage. I now have kids and am stuck (for the first time) in one place to try to keep them in the same school.

But immobility is creating serious risk for me; it is seen as evidence of “complacency” and implicitly signifies that you are a lesser asset. Because I have been at the same company for over two years now, I am watching my career crumble; my current employer increasingly sees me as complacent, especially since I won’t relocate and/or take on increased travel responsibilities, and is promoting people past me. I am currently mentoring the person that I suspect to be slated as replacement within a year.

Other employers suspect that there’s something wrong with me for having been “stuck” for over two years in one position at one company with no movement.

Explaining that I’m trying to keep the kids in one school doesn’t help; that’s seen as a huge liability. Once you admit that you have kids and you care what happens to them, you are virtually unemployable.

I would kill just to be told that I can keep my current job for the rest of my life. But I don’t see how that’s possible. It’s not that I can do a good job; I’ve earned a lot of money for my company.

It’s just a cultural presumption that if you’re no longer moving all over the place as fast as you can that you’re not “hungry” anymore, and employers want “hungry.” And if you have a family, then you have “divided loyalties” and aren’t worth as much as people who “live and breathe our vision.”

If I had it all to do over again, I’d become a plumber or a mason or a general contractor. I look around and see those guys these days and I think they’ve got the good life. Stability, community ties, in a family-friendly industry doing real work. But I had a big brain and was shunted off into college by counselors and parents whose own experiences taught them that college was the path to “the good life” (as opposed to the path to precarity, rootlessness, and cutthroat hotshot-vs.-hotshot competition).

Our modern economy is no way to live.

UPDATE.2: Reader Mungling:

So I’m a young, newly-minted professional who just finished about six years of schooling to become a skilled healthcare provider. I can report that my employment prospects are just as precarious as the individuals you frequently report on. Jobs are often part-time, forcing new graduates to hold a few different jobs simultaneously (if they’re lucky, since there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to land another job). Almost every job is a one year contract, forcing individuals to continually move around.

The result is chronic instability. Now I’ve spent the better part of decade in university, watching friends come and go and communities be born and die. I will concede that there is something exciting about the possibility of new adventures and new horizons, but after a while I began to long for a sense of community. What I want at this point in my life is to really belong somewhere. To establish roots and relationships. To really become integrated in a community. Now, truthfully, I’m in a much better condition to do that than other individuals; with that said, however, I still don’t know when I’ll ever have that opportunity to really settle down.

I truly don’t think this kind of life is healthy for anyone. Even putting aside the impact precious employment has on health and finances, I can’t help but think that lack of stability is toxic for forming meaningful relationships.

I think most people — religious or secular, liberal or conservative, young or old — recognize that forming meaningful relationships is the most important part of being alive; one wonders when we’ll begin to make a meaningful decision to structure our society accordingly.