South Miami

South Miami mayor joins protest for Sunset Place cleaners laid off after mall sale

Maria Solis, with fellow Sunset Place cleaning staff members, speaks at a news conference on Tuesday at Sunset Place. To her left is Ana Tinsly, communications specialist for Union SEIU Local 32BJ.
Maria Solis, with fellow Sunset Place cleaning staff members, speaks at a news conference on Tuesday at Sunset Place. To her left is Ana Tinsly, communications specialist for Union SEIU Local 32BJ. For the Miami Herald

Sparse smiles weakened Tuesday on the familiar faces of cleaning crew workers at the just-sold Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami.

Nine workers who’ve kept the mall clean for more than a decade are now without jobs. Grass River Property, a Coconut Grove-based developer, and Federal Realty Investment Trust, on Thursday closed on a $110 million deal to purchase Shops at Sunset Place, 5701 Sunset Dr., from Simon Property Group.

With the sale, Miami-based cleaning contractor Costal Building Maintenance (CBM) takes over for MGM Service Company.

Even before the sale closed, CBM said it is “fully staffed” at Sunset Place, but offered the laid-off MGM workers an “opportunity to apply for positions at other CBM locations in the area,” according to its president, Matt Sullivan. Sullivan said that as of Thursday, CBM had received four applications.

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard and Commissioner Bob Welsh attended the protest, on Southwest 72nd Street and 57th Avenue, along with a the unemployed workers. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ represents the cleaners.

“About a month ago, their current supervisor for the cleaning contractor told them that they would no longer continue,” Ana Tinsly, communications specialist for Union SEIU Local 32BJ, said Tuesday. “That the new cleaning contractor was coming in and that was it. They have tried to apply to their jobs through the new cleaning contractor (CBM). We, on behalf of the workers, have sent letters and emails to (Grass River). We have heard nothing, until the 29th. When they went to apply for the jobs last week, they were told the contract wasn’t final. They have seen their cleaning equipment here with the CBM logo. We (were) assuming that something is up.”

MGM was informed its Shops at Sunset Place contract was terminated, effective Wednesday. Simon Property Group and MGM could not be reached for comment.

South Miami resident Isabella Dominguez, 66, has helped clean the mall for 17 years. Dominguez survived a stroke two years ago that left her partially blind in one eye.

“I don’t see 100 percent in that eye,” Dominguez said. “I really need this job because I pay a mortgage and other things. This would mean a lot for us because we see the people supporting us. They help us to try to maintain our work.”

Dominguez worked at the mall from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 40 hours every week.

“I don’t have a plan,” Dominguez said Tuesday. “It’s hard because at my age I can’t find another job. They aren’t going to give me a job at my age. What I really feel, I know its not only me but my coworkers, is that they don’t want us because we have a union here.”

Maria Solis worked at the mall for 17 years. She is a breast-cancer survivor, currently undergoing thyroid cancer treatment. Sunset Place cleaners had health insurance costs “completely covered,” according to Tinsly.

SEIU Local 32BJ has won above-average salaries, benefits and paid sick days for its cleaners. Most custodial workers earn a median salary of $9.41 an hour, while Sunset Place cleaners earned between $10 and $13 an hour, according to Tinsly.

Stoddard has spoken to the mall’s new owner and its new cleaning contractor.

“Grass River tells me they’ve made their preferences known, but the company isn’t going to change what they do,” Stoddard said. “There was an important case decided this year in the courts, concerning labor law. The court held that the company that hires the contractor is responsible for how the contractor’s labor is handled. It does suggest the client has some say over how this is done.”

“I’ve got no authority at all at what they do and how they run their business,” Stoddard said. “It’s just a matter of corporate ethics.”

In an email statement Thursday, Grass River Property said “Coastal is accepting applications from displaced workers for positions within its organization, and we encourage interested candidates to apply.”

Grass River described Coastal as “a locally-owned company whose owner resides in South Miami. Coastal has a long track record of serving major clients in our neighborhood and we believe there will now be more maintenance workers at Sunset Place than before.”

Stoddard said Grass River Property is “a big company” that’s “going to be one of the big employers.”

“It’s our most important shopping area,” Stoddard said. “We think it’s important to get off in the community on the right foot. If the first thing that happens is that they are firing employees so that they can bring in a company that pays lower rates and benefits, that’s not our values.”

Sullivan said Grass River selected CBM through a “transparent bidding process.”

“In our process to staff this new project, we worked hard to identify employees in the area who are a good fit, including outreach to current CBM employees, robust recruiting at job fairs and evaluation of external candidates through our internal HR department,” Sullivan said in a statement.

Sullivan also said that it is “unfortunate” that “MGM doesn’t have other jobs/positions to offer their employees.”

“Technically it’s not the outgoing contractor’s responsibility to find jobs for the employees that were fired,” Tinsly countered. “It is the moral obligation of the new owners to require the cleaning company to respect seniority and retain these workers.”

Stoddard says he is working on a resolution for city staff to draft a South Miami “living-wage” ordinance.

“The county has such an ordinance,” Stoddard said. “Miami Beach has such an ordinance. The idea of the ordinance is for people who work for the municipality or companies that contract with that municipality, to pay them a living wage.”

‘The county currently updates [it’s living-wage law] every year,” Stoddard said. “We haven’t done an ordinance yet, but what the county pays this year, the bottom of their wages is $12.53 an hour for those people who have health insurance and $14.46 an hour for those people who don’t have health insurance.”

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