A dirty secret: Big-box stores put the squeeze on contract cleaners

The Sun Prairie Woodman’s store is visible from U.S. Highway 151. The size of a mega-church or a shopping mall, the building glows in the suburban midnight gloom as you approach. Every night around this time, four workers pull into the nearly empty parking lot and enter through the gleaming double doors. Their first stop is to the left, near the customer service counter, where they sign in. Then they slip into the maze of brightly lit aisles, sweeping, mopping and scrubbing the store until 8:30 a.m. They work between five and seven nights a week.

        Woodman’s is advertised as “employee owned,” but none of these custodial workers are Woodman’s employees. Their aprons and timesheets both say “Midwest Maintenance Group,” the name of an Illinois-based contracting company. But technically they don’t work for MMG either. On paper, they are independent contractors, the final link in a tangled and informal chain of out-of-state contractors and subcontractors.

        Raul Sanchez was one such worker. “I was never under a contract,” says Sanchez, an undocumented worker who has been given a pseudonym for this article. “When we started, we filled out an application with Midwest, but then our checks were coming with a different name.”

        This largely hidden Dane County workforce, the norm at most big-box retailers, works for low pay and no benefits, and has tenuous legal recourse when workplace violations occur.

        “That story is about the employers that are essentially willing to move around the rules, and the employers that have to compete with them,” says Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center On Wisconsin Strategy, a Madison-based think tank. “That pulls the whole system down.”