Like so many, I applaud and stand in solidarity with our doctors and nurses doing brave work on the frontlines of this pandemic. Yet, cleaners like me have been overlooked, even though we too are risking our lives to keep hospitals safe and clean for nurses, doctors and their patients. I work five days a week and 12-hour shifts on the weekend cleaning the rooms where people receive treatment for Coronavirus at the Kaiser Permanente Tysons Corner Medical Center. My hard and dangerous work disinfecting and keeping so many surfaces up to an impossibly safe standard is critical to reducing the spread of COVID-19.
I am being pushed beyond my limit, with a rapidly growing workload that makes it harder to focus, putting me at a much greater risk of slipping up, and becoming infected. Imagine being given more work than you can handle, knowing that a single mistake could get you infected. In fact, two of my coworkers have already contracted COVID-19. One of them kept coming to work because of the intense pressure we are under, not just because we’re short-staffed, but because we can’t survive without a paycheck.
I know the pressure all too well. With just my modest cleaning salary, I have to support two adult sons and my husband, none of whom are working. I lost my second job cleaning houses, because people are afraid that I will contaminate them since I work in a hospital. It’s extremely difficult to even pay for food and I have trouble paying the mortgage. I have no savings left because I used it all to pay for bills. I feel very sad, not just for my family but for other families I know who are in even worse circumstances, with more kids to feed.
In addition to the constant fear of contracting COVID-19 at work, cleaners fall into two groups, those who live in constant fear of being laid off or those who have already been laid off because of the pandemic. As of now, over 300 cleaners in Virginia have lost their jobs and that number is growing every day. Many cannot apply for unemployment, or may not be eligible for any of the economic relief from the CARES Act, like the stimulus checks.
We are desperately hanging on to our jobs while knowing it could get us, and our family sick, or even killed. I am very worried about our equipment running out and the danger we are in given how much time we have to spend in contaminated rooms. We are risking our lives to protect people, but we need someone to protect our lives and our livelihoods as well. Virginia has no paid sick leave requirement so many of us who are without access to employer-provided health insurance would face the unthinkable if we do get sick. That’s why we need to maintain our health insurance benefits that are so crucial during the pandemic.
While essential workers like us are keeping others safe, we are getting sick and dying. Cleaners need essential pay for the added level of risk we are facing, to make sure we can stay on the job and to afford to get to work safely. Many of us have to drive or take ride shares to avoid extra exposure on public transit and because cuts in service have left us no choice.
Cleaners are not highly paid to begin with, and now that we are paying the price with our health and lives, we should at least be paid our worth in return. We aren’t looking for applause, just protection to better ensure our survival.
Corporations got bailed out, now it’s time for the next round to focus on workers like me. The next bailout must include essential pay and PPE for those of us who continue to go to work every day, and layoff protection for those who lose our jobs or hours and will be called upon to work once the economy reopens.