Putting Family First

Erik Neilssen recognized as Window Washer of the Year at the 2021 Building Service Worker Awards.

| 29 Apr 2021 | 03:04

Erik Neilssen is a third-generation window cleaner. He’s worked alongside his uncles and credits his grandfather with inspiring the family’s shared career path.

“Over the decades, window cleaners become family, family become window cleaners,” Neilssen said. “It’s all kind of a hodgepodge. So it’s kind of been in my blood.”

Neilssen has cleaned windows since 2007 after first working in sales after graduating from Hunter College, where he studied theater. Window washing gives Neilssen the opportunity to work outside, stay active and meet new people. Over the past year, though, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in Neilssen’s work life; he was laid off last spring as demand for window cleaning waned amidst stay-at-home orders. “Everyone’s worried about the unknown,” he explained, “of, ‘How long are these buildings going to be empty?’”

Before COVID-19 forced a city-wide shutdown, Neilssen worked for more than ten years at the Paramount Building in Times Square. He often worked jobs that required “belt work” in which he clipped into hooks in the window frame and planted his feet on the window sill before leaning out and away from the building façade.

“It’s very physically intense,” Neilssen said. “You’re doing a lot of up and down, a lot of leg work.”

Working at the Paramount Building, which used to house the Paramount Theatre, struck a personal chord for Neilssen, who acts in and directs community theater productions when not on the job. On occasion, he’s even performed and directed alongside his wife, who teaches music; the pair started dating after she acted in a production that Neilssen directed.

Recently, Neilssen worked advocating for himself and other union workers who are out of jobs. Initially, Neilssen recalled being instructed to take one week off last spring, when much was still uncertain about the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. When Neilssen was laid off, he was able to negotiate back pay for his unused sick days and vacation time, along with extended benefits so that he wasn’t left without health insurance. He has also helped negotiate union contracts (with a raise slated for 2022) for those on his team.

Neilssen estimates that he’s washed windows over 1,000 feet above the streets below. Though the heights can be shocking at first, he explained that “once you get going, it’s a piece of cake.”

Neilssen looks out for his fellow workers, whom he refers to as brothers and sisters, like family. And as the city has begun its return to normal, he’s putting his coworkers first.

“I said, ‘Let’s see who else needs a job,’” Neilssen said of a recent work opportunity that was floated his way, “because I know there were guys that needed a job more than I did.”