When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, most of the 90 people working for the Portland-based Coast Janitorial Co. lost their homes. Coast — which has its home offices on North Alberta Street — has a contract with Lockheed-Martin Corp. and NASA to provide maintenance, furniture moving, hazardous waste disposal and pest control services to the NASA facility at Arnold Air Force Base in New Orleans.
"The majority of our employees lost their homes and they have been living in shelters all around the country," said Bernadette Artharee, the company's executive director.
Many Coast staff members found refuge in the Superdome and have harrowing stories to tell. Some — who found refuge in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Indianapolis — say they may not return to New Orleans because their future prospects look brighter in their adopted cities, Artharee said.
"One woman told me: 'I can't come back. I'm doing much better here,' " she said. "But I think it also has a lot to do with what they went through psychologically."
The hurricane was a logistical nightmare for the company; without any administrative staff the firm couldn't maintain any records. Nevertheless, Coast was able to keep on paying the staff.
"Our customer is still paying the wages, even for the employees who have not been able to return to us," Artharee said. "It has really helped our employees get back on their feet. Some of them have lost everything."
Some Coast employees have been with the company for more than 10 years, and most want to return, said Hasan Artharee, a manager with the company. He expects 85 percent of the staff to return by the end of the year. In the meantime, some temporary workers are commuting up to 250 miles each way to work.
Finding a place to live can be difficult, he said since rents in the New Orleans area have practically doubled since the hurricane.
That's why about six people currently are living onsite at the air force base, sleeping on air mattresses and cots. Coast's goal is to help every employee find housing before the end of the year.
"Our union down there is also getting housing for employees and helping them get back to work," Bernadette Artharee said. "They've been able to find some apartments below market rate."
The company has a long track record of working closely with union officials. Bernadette Artharee's father, Henry Scott, started Coast in 1957. Along with his entrepreneurial spirit, Scott had a strong commitment to social justice. So he joined forces with union organizers to create living-wage jobs with retirement and health benefits, Bernadette Artharee said.
"We've been union for as long as I can remember — 30 or maybe 40 years."
In the highly competitive service industry, it is not easy to pay union wages and offering health and retirement benefits said service employees union (SEIU) organizer Wesley Jones.
"In this industry the costs are all labor — there are some materials costs, but wages are by far the largest cost," Jones said. "So for people to offer lower prices, they have to figure out how to pay employees less. That creates a race to the bottom where responsible employers who want to provide decent wages and benefits get pushed out of the market."
Coast managers say that this last year has been tough, but they are going after several contracts in Oregon and have high hopes of success.
"We want jobs that are union because they pay more, but there are instances where we might get in at a lower rate and later on we will talk to our customers about paying union rates," Bernadette Artharee said.
Union representatives said research shows that while non-union companies often offer lower rates, they have higher staff turnover and are less reliable.
"Where you have non-union companies that pay low wages to workers, you also sometimes find rampant wage and hour violations which can result in lawsuits," said Pooja Bhatt, a graduate student completing an internship with SEIU.
Hasan Artharee said all Coast employees have health benefits and a pension plan through the SEIU. "I feel that leads to a healthy community — when people have health benefits," He said. "It cuts down on injuries and accidents.
"We've been going after contracts here in Oregon," said Hasan. "Right now, we're waiting to hear about one very large, high-profile contract. If we get this one it's going to be a real celebration."
Hasan didn't want to give details about the contract, but said Coast will know by the end of this year. If successful, the company will be able to add 60 more staff — most of them janitors.