It takes a certain type of person to be hanging by a belt 50 stories above ground outside a window, and still take time to admire the rising sun.
Jose Nieves, a professional window cleaner for 23 years, now based at Rockefeller Center over the last 10 years, is one of those people.
“We see the sunrise every morning – these are the views we see on postcards, that’s basically our office ... that’s probably the best part” of working as a high-rise window cleaner, Nieves said.
He got his start early – fresh out of high school – joining the union at 18 after being introduced to the field by the father of his then high school sweetheart, Lena, who himself was a longtime professional window cleaner. Now his wife, Lena and Nieves are parents to three sons, ages 14 to two years, and have moved from Queens where they met, to settle in eastern Pennsylvania, where he commutes to Manhattan daily.
The process to become a licensed window cleaner includes a two-year apprenticeship of courses and tests in a classroom on model equipment, with gradual practices outdoors while still training.
With an emphasis on safety, the instructor will do “a few months of belts [leather belts tethered from the worker’s body to two hooks outside a window as they clean the exterior]; a few months of ladder; a few months of scaffold,” he said of the three main ways that skyscrapers are generally cleaned. But learning all the skills in a classroom cannot prepare the fainthearted for this job, Nieves knows.
“If you’re fearful in the beginning, you’re not going to get used to it,” he believes. “This is a job that you’re going to know from day one if you’re going to do it or not when you [actually] go out on that scaffold.”
Nieves said he was never afraid of heights, even as a child. In fact, he said of his first time up high on a scaffold, “It was pretty cool” – everything looking so tiny from way up.
While he occasionally still works from scaffolds, large platforms lowered from buildings’ roofs at Rockefeller Center where he is based full-time, there are no scaffolds. The older windows there are accessible by using a belt, while the newer ones are designed to tilt inwards to be cleaned from inside each office.
The 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekday shift allows most of the work to be done before workers and visitors get to the iconic space that spans 48th to 51st Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Midtown Manhattan.
Each building takes about a month to complete, and his work routinely takes him up to the world-famous Top of the Rock attraction at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
“We are the ones who clean the fingerprints from the Observation Deck,” he said of the 70 floor-high visitors’ magnet.
“This is a job that you’re going to know from day one if you’re going to do it or not when you [actually] go out on that scaffold.” Jose Nieves, Window Cleaner of the Year