The big-screen movie theater experience has struggled to survive in recent years. We’re often told that the main culprits are the huge screens now available in many people’s homes and the vast ocean of content now on streaming services.
These allegedly declining profit margins are taking a toll on movie theater janitors and their families, according to a months-long investigation by Variety.
A new business model now cleans big-chain theaters
Billion-dollar figures now prominently appear in media coverage of the film industry. But the never-seen janitors who clean up the mess we leave behind are making shockingly low wages.
Movie theaters were once kept presentable by first-job teenagers tidying up between screenings. Today, major chains increasingly use mostly immigrant workers polishing the theater all night long and often well past dawn.
According to Variety’s informants, some workers bring young children to work. They sleep on the floor or in the theater seats. One interviewee reported, “They’re literally walking down rows the way agricultural workers do.”
The publication’s investigations clearly and repeatedly found large theater chains controlling costs with janitorial contractors that subcontracted janitors kept at the bottom of America’s labor market. The workers typically had no protections against wage exploitation or poor working conditions.
The heavy burden of Hollywood fantasies
According to her testimony in a 2017 labor hearing, Maria Alvarez arrived at work. Alvarez cleaned theaters every night, 7 nights a week with no vacation or sick leave or holiday, for two and a half years. She was paid $300 a week, coming around 5 dollars an hour.
She and her husband let themselves in with keys assigned to them at about midnight and they cleaned all night, frequently leaving at 9:30 the next morning. According to her testimony, on the day her son died, she had to plead for a day off until management reluctantly agreed.