By BRIDGET HUBER

Rogelio Hernandez was among the first on a recent Thursday afternoon to arrive at the hiring hall run by SEIU Local 87, the janitors’ union. He took a seat in the back of the cavernous beige room, and began what’s become a daily ritual in the last two years: waiting to see if he’ll be called to work.

Odds for the 20-year-old, who lives near Cow Palace and helps support his parents in Mexico, weren’t great. Since the economic downturn began, members of Local 87, which has 3,500 members including more than 900 who live in the Mission, have lost jobs as many businesses have folded or scaled back. Those janitors who have held onto their jobs said their workloads at each site have increased, and still they fear layoffs.

The union’s janitors have lost 250 jobs and counting. “Every week we’ve gotten bad news that another building is closing or two or three floors are emptying,” said Olga Miranda, president of Local 87, which represents 90 percent of San Francisco’s unionized janitors.

The hard times were evident in the hiring hall, which, at 3:30 p.m. last Thursday was beginning to fill up. Latino workers predominated, but there were also many Chinese workers and a few from the Middle East. It was a subdued crowd of mostly middle-aged people, split fairly evenly between men and women. Some read newspapers but most chatted quietly or stared into space.

Seniority counts for the $12.84 to $17.85-an-hour jobs handed out at the hiring halls, so most of Local 87’s most senior workers have full-time, permanent positions.

Newer workers, like Hernández, come to the hiring hall in the Tenderloin in hopes of being dispatched to temporary gigs to fill in when a worker becomes sick or goes on vacation. And, like Hernández, they come early because when the jobs are handed out, seniority gets first dibs, but next in line are the early to arrive.

Non-union members are welcome at the hall, but they have the least seniority and are only dispatched after all union members get work. When there’s a job for a non-member, the staff draws a name from a box, explained Hung Chi Szeto, secretary-treasurer of the union.

“We haven’t used that box in three months,” he said.

Nowadays, Hernández, a union member for two years, typically works one or two days a week. He barely covers his share of the rent for the apartment he lives in with his two brothers and their wives, and said scraping the money together to send home to his parents is harder every day. Still, he works more than some. “These days, some people go months without work.”

A worker waits to see if she'll be dispatched to work at SEIU Local 87's hiring hall in the Tenderloin.

A worker waits to see if she'll be dispatched to work at SEIU Local 87's hiring hall in the Tenderloin.

Sitting in his office, Szeto rattled off the names of firms that have closed offices in the city in recent months: Charles Schwab, Goldman Sachs, and many law offices.

Szeto said laid-off workers have to try their luck with temporary jobs and others are forced into early retirement.

In hard times, building managers try to cut costs by increasing janitors’ workloads, said Szeto, who worked as a janitor for more than 20 years before starting work at the union.

Szeto said worker injuries go up as their responsibilities increase.

“Humans are made of flesh and blood, not iron and steel,” he said.

Local 87 plans to picket outside of the building at 180 Montgomery St. this week, because the union said the building’s management has increased the workload at the site without its agreement and is violating the union’s seniority rules when it comes to work assignments.

The union is also fighting against building managers who are trying to save money by hiring non-union workers. Miranda, Local 87’s president, estimated 12 percent of city’s janitorial jobs are done outside of union contracts.

“Everyone’s trying to cut corners. We’re seeing our industry being auctioned off to the highest bidder,” she said.

Back in the hiring hall, some janitors said they feel depressed and worried about paying their bills and holding on to their health insurance. Local 87 provides health insurance to workers who clock at least 90 hours a month, but in these times, that’s difficult.

Roberto Bobadillo, a veteran janitor who hasn’t worked in a week said, “I’m nervous. Work is a natural tranquilizer, and the pay, even more so.”

Bobadillo lost his regular job after he returned temporarily to Mexico to deal with a family emergency.

At 4:30 p.m., a window in the front of the room opened and the forty-some people who gathered to wait for work, snapped to as a union staffer poked his head out. He had a job and called out several names, but no one answered.

“Rogelio Hernández,” he said finally.

Hernández hustled to the front of the room and returned with a slip of paper with the address of his assignment.

He grinned. “I’m going to work. I gotta go!”

Only three more workers get called and at least one of them gets only a four-hour shift.

This week, jobs were even scarcer because permanent workers must work 20 consecutive days to receive holiday pay on Memorial Day. On a more typical day, as many as 50 show up to wait for 10 to 20 jobs.

Despite the hard times, Miranda and Szeto both point to one bright spot on the horizon: in October the city will start enforcing its recycling laws at commercial buildings. The union hopes this will create more jobs for janitors since recycling is more labor intensive than throwing everything in the trash.

But for now, as the clock neared the hiring hall’s closing time of 6 p.m. the unemployed janitors started to trickle onto the street. Ana Maria Martínez sighed as she headed out the door, back to the Mission District. “It wasn’t our turn today,” she said.