Every night, after the last show ended at the AMC theater in Santa Monica, Maria Alvarez arrived at work.

She and her husband had a key to let themselves in. It was after midnight, and the building was empty. Together, they cleaned all seven auditoriums. They vacuumed the carpets and mopped the floors. They cleaned the bathrooms and restocked the toilet paper. They polished the escalators and scrubbed the glass concession cases.

They finished after sunrise. On weekends, when the theaters were especially dirty, they stayed later, until 9:30 a.m. Alvarez worked seven days a week. There were no days off, no sick days, no holidays.

“The day my son passed away, I asked for the day, and they did not want to give it to me,” she said through tears during a labor hearing in 2017.

Alvarez cleaned theaters for two and a half years. She was paid $300 a week — or about $5 an hour.

Filmmakers often speak of the magic that can happen only in a movie theater. As ticket sales have stagnated and Netflix has taken off, the industry has become increasingly protective of the “theatrical experience.”

But maintaining that experience depends on workers like Alvarez, who are grossly underpaid, overworked and easily expendable.

The major chains — AMC, Regal Entertainment and Cinemark — no longer rely on teenage ushers to keep the floors from getting sticky. Instead, they have turned to a vast immigrant workforce, often hired through layers of subcontractors. That arrangement makes it almost impossible for janitors to make a living wage.

Alvarez got hurt on the job, and a doctor recommended a lighter workload. When she made that request in April 2015, she was fired. The following year, she filed a California Labor Commission claim for unpaid wages, including overtime. The hearing officer awarded her $80,000 in back pay and penalties. But Alvarez could not collect. She did not work directly for AMC or its janitorial contractor, ACS Enterprises, which shielded them from liability. Instead, she worked for a couple — Alfredo Dominguez and Caritina Diaz — who had not even shown up to the hearing.

Even Dominguez and Diaz didn’t consider her an actual employee. In their minds, she was a contractor of a contractor of a contractor of AMC Theatres. AMC and ACS did send an attorney to fight her wage claim. In the end, the companies agreed to pay her $3,500 to go away.

Over the last eight months, Variety has investigated wage complaints from movie theater janitors across the country, reviewing class-action lawsuits, state labor commission records and investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor. A clear pattern emerged: AMC and other theater chains keep their costs down by relying on janitorial contractors that use subcontracted labor. Those janitors typically have no wage or job protections, toiling on one of the lowest rungs of the U.S. labor market.

It is customary for janitors to work all night long. Some workers told Variety that they had seen parents bring their young children to work, letting them sleep on the floor or in the theater seats. To make the job go faster, some janitors use leaf blowers to clear popcorn and wrappers out of the aisles. But the blowers leave dust on the speakers and screens, and most theaters have banned them. Instead, janitors typically go row by row with backpack vacuums. They wipe salt off the seats and clean soda stains out of the cup holders.

“This is so much like agricultural workers. They’re literally walking down rows the way agricultural workers do,” says Brandt Milstein, an attorney who filed a class-action suit in Colorado on behalf of Cinemark janitors.

The theater chains are largely immune from legal repercussions. Because they do not directly employ janitors, they are typically excluded from class-action wage cases. But some in the janitorial business say the chains are fully aware of what’s going on and are ultimately responsible.

“The theater companies are super cheap,” says one janitorial company executive who did not want to be identified to protect business relationships. “A lot of these guys, they don’t care if you use slave labor.”

Based in Leawood, Kan., AMC is the country’s largest theater chain, with 637 locations. According to interviews and documents obtained by Variety, AMC used to employ more than 100 companies to provide janitorial service. But several years ago the company adopted a “national partner model,” ultimately scaling down to just two providers nationwide: ACS, based in Pomona, Calif., and KBM, based in Hendersonville, Tenn.

The chain leveraged its size and its pricing power to save money. Brian Mullady was AMC’s director of procurement at the time. On his LinkedIn resume, he says the consolidation saved the company $8 million a year — or 26% of its janitorial costs.

Regal, the second-largest U.S. chain with 558 locations, attempted a similar consolidation but found that the service providers could not properly manage their workers, says Christopher Blevins, a former VP of operations for the company. Instead, Regal has 15 district managers who usually seek competitive bids for janitorial service.

According to an email obtained by Variety, AMC does not take bids. Instead, it tells its national contractors what it will pay based on an internal formula. Mullady, who did not respond to requests for comment, sent the email in 2016.

“We have a model in place that determines pricing for all of our contracted locations,” he wrote. “We do not go through a bidding process, all pricing is determined by AMC.”

AMC spokesman Ryan Noonan says in a statement that janitorial service providers are contractually obliged to abide by state and federal employment law.

In response to other questions, he adds, “I believe your story is not about AMC, but about ACS, which works with several theatrical exhibitors.”

ACS was founded in 2003 by brothers Jose and Raul Alvarado. According to his LinkedIn profile, Jose Alvarado started in the business working as an engineer for AMC Theatres. ACS provides janitors as well as an array of engineering services. According to the company’s website, it works with 20 smaller chains, including Pacific Theatres, Arclight and Regency, in addition to all three major chains.

ACS did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Regal or Cinemark. Its competitors believe that ACS serves the majority of AMC’s locations nationwide. Despite its vast footprint, the company claims it has only 16 to 18 employees, according to Jose Nuñez, the company’s operations director. The janitors are all considered subcontractors.

“When a theater chain approaches us for janitorial service, we will relay that to a contractor,” Nuñez testified at Alvarez’s labor commission hearing. “We’ll be that middle person between the work that is needed and a contractor that can provide it.”

Buperto Brigido was an ACS janitor for 11 years. He worked seven days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, cleaning a 12-screen theater sometimes on his own. He was paid between $700 and $900 every two weeks.

At one point, he asked owner Raul Alvarado for a raise.

“He said AMC doesn’t pay more,” Brigido tells Variety, adding that his requests for sick days and holidays were also denied. “He said AMC doesn’t pay for any of the things I’m talking about.”

This business model was pioneered by Rob Winters, who owned Winters Janitorial, later known as Coast to Coast. Founded in 1996, the company was the first to contract with theaters on a national scale.

“Before me, it was all done in-house with the kids,” he tells Variety.

Winters was based in Kansas City, and worked for AMC, Regal and other chains. At its height, the company had 500 to 600 locations, including hotels and restaurants, according to Doug Schlueter, who was the company’s VP of sales. Others heard Winters had about 400 theaters. Winters claims the figure was much lower, about 100.

Rivals say that Winters succeeded by subcontracting. By eliminating workers compensation and payroll tax expenses, he could lowball on price. Like ACS, he thought of himself as a middleman, connecting theaters with janitors without employing them.

“I didn’t hire anybody direct,” he says. “I don’t know what they did, other than clean or not clean. I would keep my percentage, and that’s what I ran with.”

Winters’ company was the target of repeated investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2013, a federal investigator met with Winters at his office in Arlington, Texas, and informed him that the government believed the janitors were employees, and that he owed them $286,000 in back wages.

“When asked why they had misclassified these employees as independent contractors, Mr. Winters advised that it is because of the way their competitors operate,” a DOL investigator wrote. Winters argued that he had no direct supervision of the workers. He refused to pay.

In 2014, the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, a union-affiliated watchdog group in Los Angeles, launched an investigation of Winters’ practices. The probe led to a $1.8 million state citation for unpaid wages to 43 employees. Winters was barred from doing business in California.

In August 2016, he declared bankruptcy in Texas. His employees were never paid.

Winters still cleans theaters, specializing in carpets, though he is no longer a major player. It wasn’t investigations that did him in. He claims he was forced out by competition from companies that relied on undocumented workers.

“There were people working for wages that I couldn’t compete with,” he says. “When you try to play straight, it makes it difficult.”

At the time of the federal investigation, the Department of Labor was also looking at other janitorial companies that work in theaters, including ACS; Simply Right in Ogden, Utah; and One Stop Personnel Services in Frisco, Texas.

Even when investigators found violations, penalties were minor. At theaters in the Rio Grande Valley in 2017, investigators found that One Stop failed to pay $240,379 to 19 janitors. The company denied the allegations and refused to pay.

In 2011, an investigation of an ACS subcontractor found that the company owed $65,987 in back wages to 32 employees. Many of the employees said they actually worked for ACS, though ACS denied it. The investigators found that ACS was a joint employer, and it agreed to make sure the contractor would pay.

Investigators also looked at ACS contractors in New York and the Pacific Northwest, though nothing came of either probe.

In 2018, Buperto Brigido and three other janitors filed a class-action suit against AMC and ACS in Los Angeles. The suit, which is pending, alleges that ACS and AMC are joint employers and owe potentially millions in back wages to underpaid janitors across California.

Some janitorial companies think subcontracting is not worth the legal risks. APCS365, of Northbrook, Ill., switched from a contractor model to hiring all of its janitors directly.

“It wasn’t an easy change,” says CEO Marina Kohen, noting that costs went up by 25%. “But you get better accountability.”

In the retail sector, advocates pressured companies like Target and Best Buy to adopt a “responsible contractor” policy, which mandates worker protections. Some argue that theater chains should adopt a similar policy.

After Rob Winters was barred from California, ACS took over many of his accounts, including the Regal theater at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles. Working conditions remained much the same, says Georgina Hernandez, who was a janitor there. She worked seven days a week, sometimes 10-11 hours a day, and was paid $400 a week. She quit after two years and took a job cleaning offices.

“I don’t know what Hell is like, but I think it would be like that,” she tells Variety. “Sometimes I was crying because my feet couldn’t take it anymore. My back couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t know how I could finish the work I had to do.”