She cleaned Phoenix mayors' offices for a decade. Then she was fired over her uniform

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Maria Sanchez cleaned the offices of Phoenix mayors, council members and top executives for more than a decade. She took care of their plants during the pandemic, shared her home-cooked food with them and knew some of their children.

But when she was fired for uniform violations in March, city leaders said there was nothing they could do.

Sanchez didn't technically work for the city. She worked for a company that worked for the city. City officials played no role in her termination.

Documents from 3H & 3H, Sanchez' former employer, say Sanchez was fired because she violated dress code policies three times: once by wearing similarly colored clothing but not the actual uniform, and twice by wearing a black vest that covered the company logo.

She was terminated March 25, the day of the third violation, and told not to return the next day.

Sanchez said she believes her firing was retaliation. She had been working to unionize her colleagues since 2022 and had been warned by her supervisor to stop, she said.

Sanchez wanted better wages, more paid sick time, vacation days and benefits.

She had worked for multiple different contractors doing the same job at City Hall for roughly 11 years. But she made $14.40 an hour, 20 cents less than city employees' minimum wage and 5 cents above Arizona's minimum wage.

Maria Sanchez protests her own termination outside Phoenix City Hall, April 10, 2024. Sanchez cleaned the offices of mayors, council members and city managers for a decade. She was fired for dress code from 3H & 3H, a city contractor.
Maria Sanchez protests her own termination outside Phoenix City Hall, April 10, 2024. Sanchez cleaned the offices of mayors, council members and city managers for a decade. She was fired for dress code from 3H & 3H, a city contractor.

She found it hard to get days off and didn't like being told by supervisors not to speak with Phoenix council members or employees, she said.

Sanchez brushed shoulders with city employees every day and shared the same hallways.

Councilwoman Laura Pastor said, "She's like family to us on the floor. She knows our kids. We shared with her. It was as if she was one of us ..."

Representatives from 3H & 3H did not respond to multiple requests for comment and questions sent by The Arizona Republic.

But Sanchez was not guaranteed the same conditions or rights as city employees. A contract between the city and her employer made clear the distinctions.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99, a union that does not officially represent Sanchez but has been assisting her, said the termination was wrongful and demonstrates the need for Mayor Kate Gallego and the City Council to pass new protections.

"What's important is that the city of Phoenix review all of these contracts and say, 'Are we creating a second class of employee?'" said Rana Lashgari, an attorney for UFCW.

Councilman Jim Waring, who said he was shocked by her firing because she did a good job and was well-liked, said there better have been a "compelling" reason.

"Ultimately, she works in our building. And so we're sort of signing off on this," he said.

On April 10, UFCW organizers joined Sanchez outside City Hall. They protested her termination and called for her reinstatement. Their drum banging and megaphone chanting just barely could be heard on the 11th floor, near the mayor's balcony.

"What do we want?" organizers chanted. "Justice!"

A couple of city employees who passed by touched Sanchez' shoulder in support and offered smiles.

It was UFCW's 10th day of protests. A handful of union members had showed up every day since Sanchez's firing. A city official warned them not to tape signs to the building exterior, so they taped the signs to tripods or held them.

Security guards in the lobby on the ground level reminded each other not to let Sanchez in the building as she picketed outside. She had refused to give up her badge, they said. They wondered if she would try to come in.

On the 11th floor, employees and council members chatted quietly in the hallways as the demonstration went on. They described Sanchez as kind, hard-working and always on time.

"I liked her," Vice Mayor Debra Stark said.

"I know. I did too," Waring replied.

Councilmembers Betty Guardado and Pastor encouraged UFCW organizers to request meetings with City Manager Jeff Barton.

Drake Ridge, a union spokesperson, said UFCW was in the process of scheduling them.

Phoenix's contract with 3H & 3H expires Dec. 31. It was first signed in January 2022, with five one-year extension options. Unless the mayor and City Council say otherwise, the staff will renew it.

Gallego, in a statement given to The Republic, signaled a willingness to switch contractors.

"Everyone deserves to work and be compensated fairly, and when the contract is up for a rebid within the next few months, I am in favor of exploring options to prioritize companies who provide fair wages for their employees," the mayor said.

Arielle Devorah, the mayor's spokesperson, said Gallego also had expressed concerns about the termination to Barton.

Public Works spokesperson Spencer Blake said the city needed to solicit proposals for new contractors by June or July to replace 3H & 3H by the December deadline.

Phoenix pays the company $1.3 million per year to clean 10 facilities. Cleaning for City Hall, where Sanchez had worked, was priced at $512,000, or nearly $43,000 a month, according to the 2024 agreement.

UFCW filed an unfair labor practice charge against 3H & 3H with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB's investigation could take months, or longer.

Sanchez said she's feeling calm and putting her faith in God, but she is frustrated, too. Money is tight and she wants her job back, she said.

What does Maria Sanchez's employer say?

Representatives from 3H & 3H did not respond to questions from The Republic, but union officials provided the "Cure Notice" sent to Sanchez explaining the company's rationale.

The letter says Sanchez wore a "similar colored non-3H & 3H uniform" and was asked to wear the company-issued apparel by her manager on March 21. The next day and four days later, Sanchez was found wearing a black vest that covered the company logo on the shirt in violation of 3H & 3H's rules.

Sanchez was cited for not complying with work orders and dress code. The company also said Sanchez violated official city rules that require employees to wear uniforms that clearly display a company logo.

City spokesperson Stephanie Barnes told The Republic no Phoenix employees had been disciplined over uniform violations in the past several years, according to internal records. None had been terminated, though it is possible some employees received notices, she said.

UFCW previously accused 3H & 3H of quashing union organizing

UFCW's charge against 3H & 3H for unfair labor practices after Sanchez' termination was not its first.

The union filed a charge Jan. 23, 2023, claiming the company was intimidating employees who were trying to organize a union.

According to UFCW Organizing Director Martin Hernandez, the company disciplined and threatened to discipline employees and "interrogated employees about their union activity." Workers were left with the impression supervisors were surveilling them, Hernandez wrote.

Sanchez said the intimidation heightened after she organized a walkout with her colleagues in 2022. Their pay was going to be late, she said. Sanchez had dealt with bounced checks with previous contractors, she said, but the conditions with 3H & 3H were the worst she had experienced.

It was hard to get a sick day, and when others took them, the company did not provide substitute workers, meaning more work for her, she said.

Parking was not paid for, so she had her husband drop her off. Forty-seven dollars for parking felt like a lot when her take-home pay every couple of weeks was roughly $1,000 after taxes.

What particularly bothered Sanchez was being told not to speak with council members. She didn't understand the point.

She said a supervisor questioned her after seeing her walk with a UFCW organizer. Now, she believes her termination was backlash.

The Republic sent 3H & 3H detailed questions about Sanchez's claims. A representative for the company first declined to comment, then suggested someone might respond but did not.

Why can't the city do anything?

Asked about the city's reaction and ability to intervene in Sanchez's termination, city spokesperson Dan Wilson said the matter was between Sanchez and her employer.

Phoenix's contract with 3H & 3H makes clear in a disclaimer that the company's workers are not considered city employees and are not afforded the same benefits.

The agreement requires 3H & 3H to follow all city, state and federal laws but says "the City bears no responsibility for the contractor's acts."

Wilson said contract workers were needed to help run "the many aspects of the 5th largest city in the country."

"City leadership values the contributions of Maria and all contract employees that work on behalf of the city," he said. "Staff spoke with the company to express concerns about the incident raised by Maria’s co-workers."

Stronger contracts wanted

A few sections of the contract outline the city's right to terminate the agreement, with or without cause, and to suspend work if the agreement was violated.

One clause says 3H & 3H "shall not discriminate against any worker ... nor otherwise commit an unfair employment practice."

Wilson said the matter would need to be "handled by the appropriate agency," which would be the NLRB. Then, "if necessary, the city would review the impact of any possible outcome on the contract."

But Lashgari, UFCW's attorney, said the city needed to better align its policies with its values.

City leaders "pride themselves on being responsible employers and put a lot of effort into making sure that Phoenix employees are treated well, that there are sufficient benefits and pay protection in place," Lashgari said. "It really should apply to everybody."

Lashgari said she believes terminating Sanchez was a violation of the contract, both the provision requiring 3H & 3H to follow federal laws, and the provision banning unfair employment practices.

But she also said it was "bigger than Maria." The City Council needs to pass a comprehensive policy to prevent "a second class of employment" from existing, she said.

Specific language added to individual contracts that reinforces protections for union organizing could also "send a very strong message ... that what happened to Maria will not be tolerated," Lashgari said.

Ridge, the UFCW spokesperson, said the union was laser-focused on getting Sanchez reinstated and hopes City Hall leaders help.

"At the moment, there is not a specific ask of how we want them to intervene on Maria’s behalf," Ridge said.

"Our focus is to present Maria’s situation to leaders, explain why we believe her termination to be unjust and work out a solution on how to reinstate her."

Councilwoman Pastor said she wants to change future contracts to include provisions that improve working conditions, including a "livable wage."

She also wants a formal complaint process for contract workers.

Blake, from Public Works, said currently there is no specific method or process for a worker to report a suspected contract violation.

"They would just have to independently reach out." Blake said.

Sanchez has shown up to the City Hall protests multiple times. On other days, she stays home to cook food she can sell for money.

Asked if she would seek another job, Sanchez said she wanted to keep fighting for this one.

She'll continue protesting because she wants justice for her 3H & 3H colleagues, she added.

Taylor Seely covers Phoenix for The Arizona Republic / Reach her at or by phone at 480-476-6116.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Contracted Phoenix City Hall custodian fired, claims retaliation