Subcontracting Leads to Low Wages for Movie Theater Janitors

On Tuesday we looked at how Marvel fans recently packed movie theaters across the country for Avengers: Endgame. Many of these viewers likely enjoyed the movie alongside an overflowing bag of popcorn and boxes of candy, snacks that can leave quite a mess in the aisles. Most people probably assume that movie theater ushers are responsible for cleaning up the stray kernels and soda spills leftover by the day’s customers. But while these employees sweep up between screenings, the harder work of mopping and scrubbing theaters at chains like AMC often falls on janitors who come in after hours.

Rather than hiring these workers directly, though, AMC depends on a subcontracting firm called ACS Enterprises to assign janitors to specific theaters. ACS doesn’t directly hire employees, either: its vast network of janitorial workers are all classified as subcontractors, meaning they do not receive the same benefits as official employees. AMC estimates that this practice of subcontracting to a subcontractor saves the company as much as $8 million per year. According to an array of class action lawsuits and labor investigations, however, those savings may come as a result of underpaying and exploiting workers. For example, Maria Alvarez and her husband earned as little as $5 an hour cleaning throughout the night at various AMC theaters. For two and a half years they worked seven days a week, with no time off for holidays or sick days. “The day my son passed away, I asked for the day, and they did not want to give it to me,” said Alvarez through tears at a 2017 labor hearing.

Many other subcontracted janitors have had similarly awful experiences working in movie theaters. Their stories can be found in all sorts of documents gathered during class action lawsuits as well as government inquiries into the labor practices of companies like ACS. Meanwhile, movie theater chains are largely immune from legal repercussions since janitors are classified as subcontractors, not employees. Some advocates argue that companies like AMC should adopt “responsible contractor” policies similar to those put in place by Target and Best Buy. These retailers once depended on cheap subcontracted labor until pressure from advocacy groups convinced them to adopt new rules that protect subcontractors from exploitation.

Questions:

  1. Why are movie theater chains often immune from lawsuits or investigations into their use of subcontracted janitorial labor?
  2. Do you think movie theater chains like AMC should adopt “responsible contractor” policies?

Source: Gene Maddaus, “How America’s Biggest Theater Chains Are Exploiting Their Janitors,” Variety, March 27, 2019. Photo by Roey Ahram.

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