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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Gingrich Makes a Mess with Janitors Claim

Newt Gingrich got it wrong when he claimed “an entry-level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry-level teacher” in New York City.

An entry-level “cleaner” is the closest thing to Gingrich’s description of an “entry-level janitor,” and someone in that position is paid substantially less than an entry-level teacher. Some may be surprised to learn that “custodial engineers” are better paid than teachers. But they are supervisors (not entry-level janitors), and even they are not paid twice as much.

Gingrich has twice cited the statistic while defending his plan to allow poor students to do part-time janitorial work in their schools. The most high-profile instance came during the Republican debate in Iowa on Dec. 10.

Gingrich, Dec. 10: What I suggested was, kids ought to be allowed to work part-time in school, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, both because they could use the money.

If you take one-half of the New York janitors who are unionized and paid more than the teachers, an entry-level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry-level teacher. You take half of those janitors, you could give virtually– you could give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria and the school library and– and front office, and a lot of different things. I’ll stand by the idea, young people ought to learn how to work.

Two days earlier, Gingrich cited that same statistic at a forum with local business leaders in Greenville, S.C.

Gingrich, Dec. 8: Now, this is education in life. This is bringing people into the world of work, the world of prosperity, the world of savings, the world of investment — and we want every young American to have an opportunity to do that.

So, if you took the cost of the New York City janitors, the most expensive janitors in New York are paid more than the highest paid teachers. The entry-level janitor is paid twice as much as an entry-level teacher. It’s all because of the union. So, I say let’s keep two janitors who are adults who are professional. They do all the heavy stuff and the dangerous stuff. And let’s take all the other jobs and divide them up into part-time kids.

At first blush, Gingrich’s claim appears to be substantiated by an April 18 story from NBC New York that stated: “First-year New York City school teachers without graduate degrees make about $45,000 a year. The minimum pay for a first-year custodial engineer is almost $80,000 a year.” But the report mistakenly confused minimum pay with base pay.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The starting salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor of arts degree is $45,530, and it’s $51,425 for someone with a master’s degree.

Things get trickier for “janitors.” For starters, there is no such job title as “janitor” in New York City schools. So let’s start with “custodial engineers,” the job designation in the NBC News report. It’s true that the base pay for an incoming custodial engineer is $81,000 a year, said Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the NYC Department of Education. But there’s a catch. According to the contract negotiated with the union, employees only get 70 percent of that base pay their first year. The pay then goes up 10 percent a year in subsequent years, up to the full base pay. So it’s more accurate to say that a first-year custodial engineer makes about $56,000. That’s more than a first-year teacher, but nowhere close to double.

More important, custodial engineers are supervisory positions (much like the ones Gingrich said he would keep). According to the description in the latest notice for the civil service exam, the job is a lot more than pushing a mop. It entails hiring, training and supervising custodial staff; doing payroll; and maintaining and doing minor repairs to HVAC, boilers and plumbing. In general, custodial engineers are “responsible for the physical operation, maintenance, repair, custodial upkeep and care of a public school building and its immediate grounds.”

There are several classifications of custodial workers, but the one that probably most closely resembles a janitor is a “cleaner,” said Robert Troeller, president and business manager of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Brooklyn, N.Y. These are the folks who dust, mop and sweep, among other things. Cleaners get paid $18.13 an hour. That comes to $37,710 a year. But there’s another catch. In the first two years, entry-level cleaners are paid 15 percent less than that — $32,054. That’s substantially less than an entry-level teacher.

And for the record, said Morgan, New York City schools already have an in-depth job readiness, career exploration program called Learning to Work, which includes internships.

— Robert Farley, with Scott Blackburn