photo: A New York MTA worker cleans a handrail in a subway station.
A New York MTA worker cleans a handrail in a subway station. David Dee Delgado/Bloomberg

Janitors, domestic workers, housekeeping, and office cleaning crews are on the front lines of the battle against Covid-19. Can they protect their own health?

Updated: March 19, 2020

Earlier this month, as coronavirus infections surged in Seattle, the downtown office building where Lilliana works started to empty out. Employees were heeding the call to work from home to limit the transmission of the disease.

But Lilliana had to keep showing up: A day porter for a local property services contractor, she vacuums the floors, empties the trash, and wipes down surfaces at a multi-tenant commercial property. (She asked CityLab not to use her name because she didn’t want to risk losing her job.)

Now Lilliana’s job comes with the pressure of protecting others as well as herself from Covid-19. Half a mile from where an Amazon employee tested positive for the virus earlier this month — eliciting a company-wide office shutdown — she isn’t confident that she had the tools to do it.

“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’s 4.4 million janitors and domestic workers are on the frontlines of the fight to “flatten the curve,” scrubbing down surfaces where pathogens might live. A predominantly immigrant workforce, these workers report to large institutions, third-party service contractors, and domestic labor platforms. Many domestic workers, especially, are self-employed; they’re caring not only for a house but for the elderly or young people inside it. Virtually all of them hustled to meet the booming sanitation demands amid a rapidly evolving pandemic. And now, some of them are feeling the economic burden in a shifting job market.

As coronavirus infections lit up communities throughout the U.S., the 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 projected to spike 75% in March compared to the same time last year on the jobs platform ZipRecruiter. On Snagajob, another online jobs posting marketplace, cleaning jobs doubled in the last two weeks, as did applicants who said they were looking for cleaning jobs, according Mathieu Stevenson, the company’s CEO.

But being a cleaner — and especially a new or inexpert one — comes with risks that this pandemic could magnify. Already these workers handle corrosive chemicals, haul heavy objects, and come into contact with potentially infectious garbage. Now they are contending with the presence of a dangerous coronavirus on the surfaces they’re cleaning, and some say that they aren’t being provided with adequate training or personal protective equipment. Lilliana says she’s been provided with gloves and eye protection, but with N-95 respirators in short supply globally, her crew is working without them. “We’ve gotten nothing,” Lilliana said. She wishes that she and her colleagues had face masks, hand sanitizer, and better health-care resources to protect their own immune systems as their jobs turn into what she describes as “constant disinfection.”

Some workers worry that the materials they’re now being asked to use might be risky. Albina Kalabic, a janitor who cleans one of Amazon’s office buildings in Seattle, said that her colleagues experienced skin and eye irritations from a powerful hospital-grade disinfectant sprayed by a special cleaning crew that serviced the property as a precaution. Virex, a cleaning agent that has become the industry’s weapon of choice to fight coronavirus, can also cause rashes and burns.

Asked for comment, an Amazon spokesperson stated that products in use contracted janitorial staff are not new and are being mixed and applied in compliance with federal standards. “Safety is a top priority for Amazon, both with our own employees the employees of our service providers, such as janitorial staff,” she said.

Meanwhile, as Americans are scrubbing their own kitchen counters and doorknobs, commercial cleaning operations are becoming more 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.”

Some large West Coast employers, including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, have promised to pay their entire workforce, from janitor to engineers, for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, regardless of whether or not they’re working. But not all are so lucky. The policy at Alliance Building Services, a contractor that supplies more than 750 janitors to properties around Seattle, is for employees to use regular vacation or sick days in case they fall ill with the novel coronavirus. The company has also forgone extra training or protective equipment for employees.

“It’s just a flu — a very contagious, fast-spreading flu — but it’s just a flu, so it’s easy to kill,” said Scott Smith, the principal of the company.

In a sense, he’s right, epidemiologists say: Like the coronaviruses that cause the common cold and seasonal influenza, the novel coronavirus that brings on Covid-19 is vulnerable to such standard interventions as soap, water, bleach, UV light, and alcohol-based cleaners. But once the virus gets transmitted, Covid-19 appears to have a far higher mortality rate than the seasonal flu, especially for older people or those with compromised immune systems.

Should they contract the virus, lower-income immigrant workers may also be among the most vulnerable populations, because they often struggle to access medical care and public health information in their own language, and may lack the financial resources to stock up on food and medicines. Immigration enforcement agencies have stopped making most arrests during the Covid-19 crisis, in an effort to encourage undocumented people to seek treatment if they need it.

The Kalabics and Cepeda have some measure of occupational defense — all three are members of the SEIU, a labor union for service workers across the U.S. But lots of cleaning professionals aren’t. Domestic workers and housekeepers, many of them immigrants and most of them women, are largely self-employed. Some are now being asked to work in potentially high-risk homes with few protections.

“These families or homeowners are not putting in their request for a cleaner as, ‘I just recently started having symptoms and I’m staying home because I may have the coronavirus,’” said Rocío Alejandra Ávila, the National Domestic Worker Alliance’s California State Policy Director and Staff Attorney. “They’re in self-quarantine, so they’re all frantic, and they don’t want to do it themselves. But the person coming in is not getting a heads up.”

Laws created to keep workers healthy rarely apply to self-employed cleaners who primarily care for private homes; for example, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) excludes them entirely from its protections. Advocates say this exemption is a product of discrimination against the black women who dominated the domestic workforce when many labor laws were first drafted in the 1930s. “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.

These gaps became clear during California’s fire season last year, when many housekeepers showed up to clean houses in mandatory evacuation areas. They had been asked to stay to take care of clients’ pets, or were left behind as an oversight — their clients just hadn’t told them to stay home. Advocates are pushing new legislation that would include domestic workers in California’s OSHA protections, says Kimberly Alvarenga, the director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. Because the legislature has suspended its session amid the Covid-19 emergency, however, a resolution may be far off.

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% do not have sick leave, said Kashen; worker’s compensation coverage is slim, and varies by state, and unemployment insurance is nonexistent.

“Domestic workers hold the economy up on a day-to-day basis: They make it so that everybody else gets to go to work,” said Alvarenga. “At this moment, they’re on the front lines of this, in terms of economic impact. And there are no safety nets for them.”

Some gig economy platforms that help cleaning workers book jobs are offering additional measures and protections during the Covid-19 emergency. Ariel Rothbard, a spokesperson for TaskRabbit, said that the company has sent emails to all users with WHO’s coronavirus prevention recommendations, and “advised them to prioritize their health, in order to keep our TaskRabbit community safe.” Snagajob has upped its mandatory training for cleaners to include coronavirus precautions, said Stevenson.

TaskRabbit and Snagajob are also waiving normal penalties for canceling a job within 24 hours of a booking. Snagajob’s Stevenson said that he also planned to permanently remove the requirement that workers provide a doctor’s note if they’re sick, or risk negative ratings on the app. “This is a group of workers for whom health care is not always readily accessible,” he said; a constant reality that the current crisis only made starker.

Stevenson says that they’re looking into providing free weekly coronavirus testing to all workers on the platform, to provide peace of mind to employers and employees. (That could prove difficult, given the current lack of testing availability in the U.S.) Handy, another such platform, did not respond to requests for comment.

Self-employed domestic workers are also facing unique financial challenges as coronavirus bears down. For one, most must provide their own cleaning supplies, and as the stakes of disinfection are raised, Ávila says employers have been asking their cleaners for more potent and specific products — yet another added cost they have to take on themselves.

Anabel Garcia, a house cleaner and landscaper who lives in Santa Rosa, California, said through a Spanish interpreter that she has entered homes without knowing if they contain sick residents. While only one of her clients has asked for (and provided) extra-strength cleaning supplies, she says that the burden of buying gloves and face masks has fallen on her alone.

But that burden may be soon be replaced by another one: Garcia’s jobs for the next week have mostly been canceled. For even as demand for disinfection initially surged, domestic work opportunities are likely to shrink as more people shelter in place, and offices, schools, and large institutional spaces shutter. Cleaners who are part of the Facebook group House Cleaning, Laundry, and More Tips are already reporting waning demand, with clients canceling shifts last-minute for fear of catching the illness or because they are no longer able to afford the service. Some cleaners themselves chose not to show up to a house for fear of being a vector for disease.

“Now that this crisis is happening and hitting everybody, domestic workers and other low wage immigrant workers are going to feel it the worst,” said Alvarenga. “They don’t have anybody to take care of their children, they don’t have the ability to access a lot of the rental assistance programming because of their [immigration] status, and they don’t have access to unemployment insurance.”

A special elite of cleaning workers are getting extra training to face the pandemic. Nik Lahiri, the owner of California-based Essel Environmental Engineering and Staffing, has been relying on Craigslist to recruit hundreds of new employees to serve on hazmat crews for the surge in demand for building disinfections that he foresees in the coming months. New hires undergo three to five days of intensive training, and usually come with some previous experience of cleaning up after natural disasters or viral outbreaks.

“When the rest of the world is losing their minds, houses and jobs, that’s when people rely on us to come through,” Lahiri said. “It’s our duty to have people ready that are properly trained and aren’t just picked up off the street.”

Changes may be coming for some unionized workers. Amid the outbreak, David Huerta, the president of SEIU West, a chapter representing about 23,000 janitors among many other service professionals up and down the West Coast, said that the national organization is currently bargaining with employers and will soon present a list of demands for workers, including access to health care, paid time-off and information, training, and proper safety equipment.

“This is going to be a huge challenge, keeping up with every workplace, every property, every apartment complex, everyone,” said Huerta. “We never really realize how important cleaning is until we realize that there’s an epidemic out there that’s just beginning to spread.”

And while cleaners themselves are proud to be part of the solution to this public health crisis, they don’t want to be erased, said Cepeda. “We’re trying to keep this virus out of the buildings and keep all the people safe,” she said. “But I’m a human being. We want to feel safe too.”

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