‘Tough’ Cleaner No Longer Rides the Back of the Bus

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Ingram hasn’t missed day of work in 54 years

By Laura Shin

Hazel Ingram is 87 years old, and she isn’t afraid of anyone.

“I’ve been a tough little woman, you better believe it,” she said. Ingram has never missed a day of work in all of her 54 years working as a cleaner at 575 Madison Ave.

“If they didn’t make us take our vacation, I would work straight through my vacation, too,” she said.

At 22, Ingram left her small hometown in Georgia for New York City. She traveled by train to North Carolina, where she visited her cousin. She then rode on the back of a bus—because she was forced to—all the way to New York.

Hazel Ingram, 87, has no plans to retire as a building cleaner. Three years ago, she was hospitalized in Houston after a clash with police at a union demonstration for better wages. Photo by Karl Crutchfield

Her grandmother was a slave. “I think that’s what made me so strong. To think about how she was treated,” she said.

In 2007, Ingram went to Houston, Texas, with fellow 32BJ SEIU union members to protest for janitors who were being paid $5.30 an hour. Ingram was hospitalized after police officers charged at the protestors with horses. She points to the scar on her wrist.

After the protest, the Houston janitors were given a $2.50 raise and a better benefits package, she said.

“With her age, determination and will, she brings a lot of power and energy into the building,” said Zeqir Demiraj, the building manager at 575 Madison Ave., who has worked with Ingram for 30 years.

Ingram calls herself the “mother of the union.” She has assumed multiple leadership positions there, including member of the union’s trial committee. She also works with elected officials and often travels as part of her work with the union.

As shop steward of her building, she ensures that workers are treated fairly and in compliance with laws and terms of agreements. “Anytime there was a complaint, I’ve never lost a case,” she said.

Ingram works the five-to-midnight shift. She said she has no plans to retire and that she loves her job. “I love cleaning, and I’m the best one there,” she said.

She knows everyone in the building and one time when she noticed a stranger trying to take something from a desk, she confronted him and escorted him to security.

Despite devoting so much time to her work, Ingram still manages to take her grandchildren to Disney World and everywhere else she can. Ingram has six children, 19 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren, all scattered throughout the five boroughs.

“She’s been the backbone of our family,” said Daynel Ingram, Ingram’s 22-year-old granddaughter. “She’s taught me the value of hard work and resilience. She’s done so much with so little.”

Daynel graduated from Tufts University this past May with a bachelor’s degree, and is now working on her masters in educational studies. She said her grandmother has also helped her financially, opening up more opportunities for her.

Ingram said nothing makes her more proud than working and being able to help her grandchildren. “I live for my family,” she said.

She splits her time between New York and Tobyhanna, Penn., where she owns a four-bedroom home. When she isn’t working, she said her favorite thing to do is clean her house.

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