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Cleaning Workers are on the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Pandemic
“Stay home, because we can’t.”
That’s one of the viral phrases going around to raise awareness about how some workers—like health care workers, first responders and cleaning staff—cannot work from home or self-quarantine during this coronavirus outbreak.
In fact, cleaning staffs are on the front lines of fighting this global pandemic, as they are responsible for deep cleaning, disinfecting and scrubbing the surfaces and areas that are hosts of potentially dangerous germs and viruses. Many of them work with elderly individuals as a part of their jobs, and many of them are also immigrants—which puts them at another, complicated risk of infection from the new coronavirus.
One article shares the story of Lilliana—a cleaning servicewoman who vacuums floors, empties trash, wipes down and disinfects surfaces and deep cleans spaces in Seattle. After one person was identified with the virus less than a mile away, her supervisor asked her to continue doing her job as normal.
“My supervisor says, ‘Everything is like normal, wear your gloves and wash your hands,’” she said. “But personally, I think that the priority is the tenants. I wish we had more information.”
America has some 4.4 million janitors and domestic workers who are fighting to “flatten the curve” of the virus. As the article explains, a large majority of these workers are of an immigrant population, and they work for large institutions, third-party service contractors and domestic labor platforms. Many domestic workers, furthermore, are self-employed—caring not only for a house but the people who live in it, young or old.
As the new coronavirus began sweeping across the US and sanitation demands skyrocketed, many felt as though they could not keep up. Demand for cleaning workers has grown. Offices, schools, transit systems, malls, restaurants and other businesses are now seeking anti-viral scrub-downs, and help-wanted ads for cleaners are expected to go up 75 percent in March. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency recently released a list of effective disinfectants to fight COVID-19.
But cleaning workers face risks that go beyond tackling this current pandemic. These workers handle corrosive chemicals, haul heavy objects and come into contact with potentially infectious garbage. Now, they are potentially in direct contact with the coronavirus—and many say they aren’t being provided with adequate training or personal protective equipment.
Lilliana says she has been provided with gloves and eye protection, but N95 respirators continue to be in short supply. She says that she wishes she and her colleagues had face masks, hand sanitizer and better health-care resources to protect their immune systems as their jobs turn into what she describes as “constant disinfection.”
But that’s not all. Some worry that the already dangerous chemicals they’re being asked to use are potentially harmful to a person’s health. One janitor, Albina Kalabic, said her colleagues experienced skin and eye irritations from a powerful, hospital-grade disinfectant sprayed by a special cleaning crew that serviced the property. Virex—a cleaning agent that is also being used against the coronavirus—can also cause rashes and burns.
For many cleaning workers, their jobs have become more focused on quantity over quality, and very labor-intensive. “It used to be that my job was to just clean one floor, and starting this week, it’s going to be double,” said Amir Kalabic, Amina’s husband, who is also a janitor at Amazon. “It’s becoming a quantity job, instead of a quality job.”
The coronavirus and surge of cleaning service demands has highlighted other concerns about employers’ treatment of workers when it comes to pay, sick leave and vacation. Larger companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook have agreed to pay their entire workforce throughout the COVID-19 crisis, from engineers to janitors, regardless if they are working or not.
However, many have not been given the same promise. Alliance Building Services, a contractor that supplies more than 750 janitors to properties around Seattle, is enforcing a policy for employees to use regular vacation or sick days in case they fall ill with the new coronavirus. The company has also forgone extra training or protective equipment for employees.
Some employers are justifying these kinds of decisions and policies by saying the coronavirus is just a flu—which has some validity. It is a respiratory disease very similar to the common cold and seasonal influenza; however, its mortality rate has shown to be much higher than the flu, especially for older people or those with compromised immune systems.
Cleaning workers—many of whom are lower-income, immigrant workers, statistically speaking—are at a uniquely vulnerable place in this crisis. Not only do they work directly with pathogens and infectious germs, but they often struggle to gain access to medical care and public health information in their own language and lack the financial resources to stock up on food and medicines.
Many laws do not address cleaning workers or self-employed individuals who care for private homes. For example, OSHA excludes them entirely from its protections.
“There are currently no standards in place to make sure domestic workers aren’t coming to work when it might endanger their health,” said Julie Kashen, the senior policy advisor for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
In fact, if domestic workers get sick, many will also find it harder to take time off, which introduces a risk of infecting the families they care for or the families they leave at home. Of the 2.5 million domestic workers in the country, 82 percent do not have sick leave, said Kashen. Worker’s compensation coverage is slim, and varies by state, and unemployment insurance in nonexistent.
In this time of panic, anxiety and uncertainty, it’s easy to focus on yourself and your own needs. However, it’s important that we understand who is working to keep us healthy in the face of this pandemic. Healthcare workers, first responders and cleaning workers are all on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak while the rest of us stay inside and social distance.
“When the rest of the world is losing their minds, houses and jobs, that’s when people rely on us to come through,” said Nik Lahiri, the owner of a California-based hazmat crew employer. “It’s our duty to have people ready that are properly trained and aren’t just picked up off the street.”