The $140,000 Janitors

The New York Post recently slammed janitors for being overpaid. But Azriel James Relph, who grew up a custodian’s son, says try cleaning some school bathrooms.

11.24.10 10:42 PM ET

When the New York Post recently reported with some disgust that the highest paid janitors in New York City each make more than $140,000, it caught my attention. Typical Post-y puns decried how custodians were “mopping up” and “cleaning us out.” And Harold Levy, a former schools chancellor, was quoted as saying, “The idea that custodians make more than teachers is outrageous.” Yoav Gonen, the reporter who wrote the piece, added not-so-subtle condescension for the profession by putting the official term for the job—custodial engineer—in quotation marks. The story also noted how one top-earning public school’s custodian abused taxpayer dollars by having his subordinates paint his house on the job—if true, an appalling fact that should cost him his job. But most of the writer’s rage was directed at the fact that a few janitors were making a decent living at all.

I’m guessing that Levy, Gonen and the editors at the Post have never cleaned a bathroom after hundreds of teenagers used it. If they had, they might reserve their outrage for some of the city’s other top earners.

I had the distinct pleasure of growing up poor in a mostly middle-class town. In junior high school, I was one of my only friends lucky enough to have a house made of aluminum—on wheels. My classmates had to stare in jealousy as me, my brother, and three sisters were dropped off at school in our 1979 Ford Pinto—faux wood siding and all. But what surely made them the most envious was when they noticed that the man behind the wheel—my father—was also the school’s janitor. OK fine, they weren’t jealous at all. In fact, they were jerks. And my father’s job was the subject of scorn—leading to a couple of fistfights down by the football field.

“The idea that custodians make more than teachers is outrageous.”

When I misbehaved at school (which happened often), instead of detention with fellow troublemakers, my punishment was to assist my dad. Maybe the principal thought it was a nice way for me to spend time with my dad, whom I only got to spend time with on weekends. (After taking community-college classes during the day, my father worked the night shift at the school.) Or maybe the headmaster thought the extra sting of embarrassment would make me think twice before acting out again. If you ask me, to empty trash bins and have smelly “trash juice” leak all over me, was cruel and unusual punishment. I scraped gum off desks, scrubbed graffiti off bathroom walls, and mopped the basketball court until it shined. And yes, I even had to clean and plunge a toilet or two.

It was disgusting and embarrassing. But I am more disgusted and embarrassed by the supposed professionals who look down their noses at the people who do their dirty work. They are the intellectual equivalents of middle-school bullies.

New York City teachers certainly don’t get paid enough. The base pay is about $45,000, and it takes 22 long years to hit the $100,000 cap, according to the Department of Education. A city janitor maxes out about $6,000 higher—those top 20 reported to earn over $140,000 did so through massive overtime. But in the U.S., the average janitor makes $22,000—roughly half of a teacher’s starting pay. A handful of custodians who have worked long and hard enough to make a good living shouldn’t be an affront to anyone.

However, I can think of plenty of people whose salaries are offensive. Derek Jeter makes $22 million a year ( excluding endorsement deals) to play a game that most of us would do for free, if we weren’t so busy working crappier jobs. (But perhaps that’s the Red Sox fan in me getting upset). How about James Feltman, the former superintendant of Commack, Long Island schools? He got paid over $650,000 last year (10 times what his teachers made) before retiring—and he probably never had to scrub graffiti reading “Feltman Stinks!” off a wall. Or what about New York Post Editor Col Allan, who reportedly makes almost $1 million a year to make sure his reporters keep the schoolyard stigma of doing a hard day’s work alive?

My dad isn’t a janitor anymore. He finished college, and now teaches sixth graders instead of cleaning up after them, and now makes a little more money. Still, every time I speak to him, he tells me that he liked his old job better.

But at least people don’t make fun of him anymore.