Graphic via Desirée Tapia for COURIER Cleaners and Coronavirus
Graphic via Desirée Tapia for COURIER

“I walk into this house worried I’m bringing home something that will kill my father—it’s a lot to deal with.”

Al likes his job. He even likes the crew he works with. The 44-year-old Michigan native has been a janitor for 12 years; for the last two, he’s worked at a university. Unlike accounts from other cleaners, Al believes his employers have his best interests at heart. 

“I feel like my employer does care about us, but they also have an understandable obligation to their clients, which happen to be college students,” Al, who asked to withhold his last name for privacy concerns, told COURIER. 

Instead, he worries about his family: Being a janitor during a global pandemic poses a huge risk to them. What if he contracts the novel coronavirus that’s sickened tens of thousands of people in the United States, and brings it home? 

“My biggest issue is the mental toll this is taking on me,” Al said. “I do not live in the house with my youngest son. He had a birthday today. I had to give this present to him while sitting on the porch and singing happy birthday to him as he looked at me through the window.”

On any normal workday, domestic workers, such as health home aides, nannies, and house cleaners, and janitors collect unsanitary garbage, handle corrosive chemical supplies, and expose themselves to biological material that may carry infectious disease. Those who work inside other people’s homes also sometimes care for the vulnerable, like the elderly and disabled. 

Now, these 4.4 million cleaners and domestic workers are responsible for helping to fight a dangerous, highly contagious pathogen with little guidance on how to stay safe. 

“I do not live in the house with my youngest son. He had a birthday today. I had to give this present to him while sitting on the porch and singing happy birthday to him as he looked at me through the window.”

The work they do is necessary to “flattening the curve”— or slowing the rate of infection to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed—but they’re also putting themselves at tremendous risk for little reward. 

For example, many janitors and domestic workers don’t have access to protective gear. The shortage of personal protective gear for U.S. healthcare professionals has slowed COVID-19 testing and spurred the private sector, including Apple and Nike, to step up and fill in gaps left by the federal government. In fact, the U.S. government said on Wednesday it was reaching out to other countries to ask for spare medical supplies.

Al, however, said he and his staff do have the right protective equipment, but fears it will run out soon. 

Other janitors at his place of employment, he added, have decided not to take those risks and left. “Our staff is short. One person took FMLA [the Family and Medical Leave Act] due to pre-existing health issues, and another opted to retire early due to fears of getting sick from the virus. I believe he was in his early 60s.” 

Although he remains committed to his job, Al is concerned about potentially passing the virus to his elderly father.

“I currently live with my father,” he explained. “My father is 72 years old with numerous pre-existing medical conditions that surely would cause him to die if he contracted this virus. He has high blood pressure, a protein C deficiency, his heart is weak, and his lungs are severely damaged due to the removal of several blood clots.” 

Al said he has taken several precautions to protect his dad. He is spraying everything with Lysol disinfectant and staying 12 feet or more away. He also tries to eat enough in the morning to get him through a full day so he only has to use the kitchen, where he could potentially contaminate the shared space, once a day. 

Every day, he said, “I walk into this house worried I’m bringing home something that will kill my father—it’s a lot to deal with.”

With mounting pressure to keep the locations they serve free of COVID-19, many workers also fear retaliation if they challenge their employers about safety or request sick leave. This is particularly the case for those who work in people’s homes.

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“The nature of domestic work is that it takes place in someone else’s home, and unlike tech and other business models, domestic workers can’t work from home,” Julie Kashen, senior policy advisor for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), told COURIER. “Domestic workers take their responsibility for others’ care very seriously. Potentially bringing the virus to an elderly client’s home, or being infected with the virus from a doctor or nurse whose children she cares for as a nanny, demonstrates both how much we rely on each other as well as how much more support our care economy needs.”

According to NDWA, 82% of domestic workers don’t have paid sick leave, and 25% say they were fired just for requesting time off. 

Al admitted he can relate: “I feel like this particular employer would not fire me. But if this were any of my older jobs, that would definitely be a concern of mine—getting fired that is.”

Moreover, many of these workers are undocumented immigrants who are often left out of the equation in congressional discussions about emergency relief for workers. “The virus is not discriminating based on immigration status, which brings into even stronger relief the importance of making sure that our laws don’t either,” Kashen said. 

Earlier this month, NDWA started the Coronavirus Care Fund to support domestic workers who want or need to stay home. 

“More than ever, we need to ensure these workers have access to the support they need, both financial and medical, so that they can take care of their own families, and continue their critical work in our society as it is safe for them to do so,” Kashen said. “Never before have we seen so clearly how universal the need for care is, and how interconnected we are, and the only way we will get through this is if we ensure that we all get through this together.”

It’s still unclear just how devastating the economic toll of the outbreak will be. Goldman Sachs economists estimate that 2.25 million Americans filed for unemployment for the first time last week. Domestic workers and janitors, however, are seeing an increase in demand. ZipRecruiter expects ads for cleaners in March to have increased by 75%, while Snagajob has seen ads for cleaning jobs double in the last two weeks, according to CityLab

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Yet, according to the 2017 Home Economics Report by NDWA, hourly wages have stagnated for domestic workers since the 2008 economic recession. Roughly 23% of workers report receiving less than their state’s minimum wage, 70% say they are paid less than $13 an hour, and 65% do not have health insurance. NDWA estimates a staggering $105 billion in wage theft from employers failing to pay overtime wages and demanding employees work beyond typical hours. 

Al is in a better position than most cleaners. He has paid sick leave and protective gear (for now at least). Still, the emotional toll is heavy. Every day he goes to work, he risks contracting a deadly virus to spare others from getting it while also knowing that he may not be able to protect his family from it.

A day after COURIER interviewed Al, the janitor shared an update. He was home from work with a runny nose and a sore throat—early symptoms of COVID-19. Al is now self-isolating in the same home as his father. He fears if things worsen, he may have to live out of his truck to protect his loved ones.

“I’m starting to read tweets on Twitter of people who have lost parents and grandparents to this virus,” Al said. “That scares the hell out of me honestly, and I consider myself to be one tough cookie.”