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.

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.