Behind the Hidden World of New York City Window Washers

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 12: People stand below broken scaffolding on the top of the 46-story Hearst Tower after two trapped window washers were rescued on June 12, 2013 in New York City. The workers, who were servicing the window-washing equipment when the scaffolding broke, were left dangling 500 feet above Eighth Avenue. Firefighters and NYPD emergency service unit officers were were able to rescue the men as hundreds of onlookers gazed up from the street. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Perched on a scaffold overlooking Washington Square Park, Omar Escobar and his window cleaning crew begin their descent from the seventh floor. The scaffold carrying 3 men descends slowly and gracefully. The NYU building, however, has ornamental molding that extends a foot outward from its flat exterior, blocking the downward path of the men. One man swings a leg over the rail of the scaffold and kicks off from the building, pushing the scaffold around the obtrusion.

For the window washers, it’s just another average day on the job. Watching them is like noticing how a spider expertly traverses its web. It’s incredible, yet the city keeps rushing along below.

Hidden Dangers

As a professional high-rise window cleaner, Escobar sees sidewalk ballets play out beneath him: the sidesteps and shuffles of commuters rushing to work. He sees into the intimate lives of people behind the glass. He sees so much life from outside the glass and above the city, yet few people ever look up to see him.

Being unnoticed is one of the challenges of the profession. In August 2017, Eduardo Monge, 56, was cleaning a 12th-story window in Flatiron. He wasn’t using a scaffold, like Escobar, but was cleaning windows using a method called belt work, used on older buildings in the city that were built with large steel bolts inside the window frames.

To clean these kinds of windows, washers attach a belt to the bolts on either side of the frame. They clip themselves to the belt and hang back over the city on the outside of the glass. Monge clipped in, but the bolt – and his harness – gave way. He fell six floors to his death. A team member washing a window a few feet away saw him fall, but could do nothing to save him.

Belt work is one of the most dangerous parts of the job. Because buildings are no longer constructed using this kind of bolt, many contractors today see them as unnecessary, not realizing that window washers rely on the bolts. If a company wants to renovate an old building to make it new, contractors will come in and cut the bolts because they want to make the wall flush. Window washers are supposed to tug as hard as they can on the bolts to make sure they’re secure before rigging up for belt work, but you can’t always tell just by tugging.

Hold On Tight

High-rise window cleaners have been keeping New York City’s skyscrapers gleaming since the late 1800’s, when buildings first began to rise above 20 stories. In 1890, an architect named George Browne Post constructed the 20-story New York World Building, the first to climb higher than Trinity Church’s 284-foot spire on Wall Street.

In those days, window washing was shockingly low-tech, even by 19th century standards. Cleaners didn’t use scaffolding, electric lifts, belt hooks, hanging baskets, or even rope. They would simply stand on the ledge of the façade and hold on tight. Though the industry has advanced considerably since then, window cleaning is still a dangerous profession; it’s also one that few people notice. And when they do take notice, many people don’t realize the extensive amount of training and know-how that goes into the work.

Safety is not taken lightly in the window cleaning industry. Managers, crew members, regulators, and the workers’ union are all equally concerned about adherence to safety codes. Omar Escobar, a small easy-going man whose eyes shine when he smiles, proudly showed off his four separate certification cards that he keeps in his worn leather wallet at all times. He’s been extensively trained for scaffold installation, safety supervision, and OSHA regulations.

Every four years, every window washer is required to spend 32 hours getting retrained at the 32BJ union headquarters; and for managers like Escobar, its every three years. As a supervisor of 20 window cleaners, he’s always concerned about the safety of his crew, who he said are like family to him. His biological family is all still in Mexico City, where he emigrated from over 20 years ago. His brother has grown more worried about Escobar’s safety since the death of their mother four months ago. “He’s scared all the time,” Escobar said quietly, trailing off.

Escobar recalled a harrowing incident when a member of his crew slipped off the scaffold. A hook had come loose on an especially windy day. Twelve stories above the rushing city, he hung from the edge of the scaffold, holding on for dear life just like the first window washers. “It’s hard when you see your friend hanging, you want to do everything for your friend, but you have to go step by step,” he says. Thanks to Escobar’s training, he was able to help him climb back up to safety.

It Takes More Than a Bucket

Though he’s aware of the dangers, Escobar isn’t scared of the height. In fact, it’s his favorite part of the job, and the reason why he started window washing 16 years ago. He loves heights so much that in his free time, he rock-climbs. Beaming with pride, he mentioned climbing one of the highest peaks in North America, Pico de Orizaba in Mexico. “You are the highest, you can see all around. You can feel comfortable,” he said, “I feel peace.”

Ramon Torres, a Brooklyn native, has not always been so confident with the heights. Torres, 41, remembers his first day on the job 15 years ago like it was yesterday. He was terrified. Torres is a large, loud, confident man, but he said he used to take Xanax to calm himself down before going up. Though he’s gotten used to the heights, he maintains a healthy reverence for the dangers. He’s always certain to adhere to every safety requirement, because, he said, “The day that you act like everything is fine is the day that something will happen.”

Like Escobar, Torres completed comprehensive schooling to become a window cleaner. He finished two years of trade school at the union headquarters before ever picking up a squeegee. He and his coworker Caroll Alvarado complained that people don’t realize how intelligent window washers have to be. “Everybody thinks that you can just become a window cleaner by buying the bucket and getting some tools. Nobody understands how much goes into this,” Torres said. “I did not go to school for two years to have you ask me to clean your windshield.”

Despite the dangers and public misperceptions of his work, Torres loves what he does. “I never thought I’d be able to say I’m a professional anything,” he said. “Once you clean windows, it becomes a part of you.”

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