Arts, Culture & Media

Silicon Valley's Immigrant Janitors Learning English at Work

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Credit: Photo: Jason Margolis
A Google employee tutors one of the company's janitors in a weekly class.

If the new US Senate immigration reform bill becomes law, millions of people will need to learn English to become permanent US residents. Immigrants who are living in the U.S. with visas continue to need a basic English proficiency to pass a citizenship exam.

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It’s hard enough for any of us to learn a new language, but it can be especially difficult for immigrants. Many work multiple jobs and have little spare time. And there are diminishing resources available for them to learn.

Consider the case of Daniel Montes. When he was 18, Montes moved to the Bay Area from Mexico. Everything was an adjustment, but nothing was more difficult than the new language.

"It would be equal to losing your voice and not being able to speak from one day to the next," said Montes.

Montes found work as a janitor. He said he remained virtually silent at work for two years until he found an ESL class in a church in San Jose.

"It was a big commitment, and it was very difficult physically to sustain. There were times when I would lose my pencil because I was so tired from working two jobs."

That was in the late 1970's. Today Montes runs the company Brilliant General Maintenance in San Jose. He has about 300 janitors on his staff, most of whom are immigrants like himself. Montes said he's glad his employees have an easier path to learn English.

Thirteen years ago, the janitor's union in California, SEIU, struck a bargaining agreement with contractors like Montes. Employers up and down the state now contribute a few extra pennies per hour worked toward training programs, everything from health education, to new parenting classes, to English instruction.

Companies must independently agree to allow classes at the work site, and many firms are allowing them in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In the past two years, a growing number of Silicon Valley's biggest companies – Facebook, Cisco and Adobe among them – have agreed to transform boardrooms into classrooms.

I visited a class at Google's Mountain View campus, where student janitors were taking classes with a trained teacher and also working one-on-one with volunteer tutors, who are Google employees. Both student and tutor arrived early in the morning, an hour before their shift started. Classes also take place at night.

"Before I worked here, I had three works (jobs), and I didn't have time for school," said janitor Edith de la Rosa, originally from Mexico. She started taking classes at Google last year.

The convenience of learning English at the workplace isn't just benefiting janitors; it helps the companies as well. A Google manager I met expressed his support for the training program. But he preferred that I let the janitors do the talking.

De la Rosa said she's certain she's a better employee now.

"Every day I learn two or three words, it helps me in conversations with the clients. For example, 'Excuse me, do you know who is fixing the toilets or the lights, or something?' And I say, 'Oh no, the water has come to the floor, oh yea, I do it. Let me take something to clean it up.'"

Even that basic conversation would've been impossible last year.

But again, companies like Google are under no obligation to open their buildings to the janitors. And many Bay Area companies are refusing.

"When anyone hears about it, when foundations hear about it, the government, it's held up as a win-win partnership. It's labor, it's the community, it's the biggest corporations in the world partnering for the janitors," said Alison Ascher Webber, associate director of the non-profit Building Skills Partnership, which coordinates the English classes.

Yet, she said, "It's surprisingly hard to sell (the English program) because it's a subcontracted workforce. Often the corporations that employ them (the janitors) indirectly don't even want to hear or talk about it."

"It's not their (the corporation's) bottom-line, it's not what they do. They're just about numbers on a finance sheet. As long as the rooms are clean, it's all about cutting costs."

Webber mentioned Intel and Chevron as two companies that have refused the program. I sent multiple e-mails and placed phone calls to both Intel and Chevron to ask about the English-learning program. Neither responded.

Webber called this attitude "short-sighted." There's plenty of talk about how Silicon Valley is splitting into two classes, rich and poor. Webber stressed that Silicon Valley increasingly needs mid-level managers.

"How are we going to get people to check the water systems at the sewage treatment center? How are we going to get people to become firemen, be metal workers and machinists?"

English will allow immigrants to step into those positions. But learning English in California has become increasingly difficult.

Over the past five years, adult education budgets have been slashed by some 60 percent statewide across local districts where beginning adult ESL classes are traditionally taught. Five years ago, the San Jose Unified School District had 10,000 adults enrolled. Today, there are less than 2,500 adult learners.

Community colleges can't pick up all that slack either.

With these severe cutbacks, that makes the option to study English at work all the more critical.

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