Through the thick of the coronavirus outbreak in March, Blanca Cruz Beayala cleaned office buildings in downtown Houston.
But after weeks of being armed with nothing but gloves, a short-sleeved uniform and Clorox wipes, she stopped going to work.
It wasn’t an easy decision. She did not want to sacrifice her pay. But she’s a diabetic, making her more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, so she was worried about her health. She was also concerned about the well-being of her nieces who live with her.
“Things like work, food and clothes are all recuperable — one can get it anywhere,” Beayala said via a translator. “But health and life are not the same and if we don’t take this seriously we risk harming future generations.”
Janitors and cleaners are among those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak, putting themselves at risk each time they go to work. As the number of cases continues to climb, more than 2.4 million janitors face a number of dangers, advocates say, from a lack of protective gear to little to no information about what they’re up against.
Unions, employment attorneys and business owners have also been vocal about the mounting strain on janitors and cleaners who work on the frontlines.
“It’s scary,” said Erick McCallum, owner and CEO of The Cleaning Guys. The deep-cleaning company managed the cleanup in Dallas during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
McCallum said he has seen hundreds of videos featuring workers improperly cleaning online.
“Unfortunately, it’s not being done properly,” he said. “They’re also putting these people at risk that are doing this disinfecting or attempting to do the disinfecting.”
When it comes to infectious disease, McCallum said there’s no room for error. McCallum said his cleaning crews have cleaned police departments, hospitals, city buses, office buildings and schools. Everything has to be done right — from using proper chemicals to donning appropriate protective gear.
“You want to have somebody who’s qualified, who’s got experience and knows what they’re doing,” he said.
Companies that employ janitors say their employees’ health and safety is top of mind.
“The safety of our team members, our clients, and the public is always of primary importance in everything that we do,” according to a statement from ABM Industries. “In light of the fluid situation regarding COVID-19, ABM remains vigilant in monitoring the most up-to-date safety, infection control and cleaning protocols recommended by global experts.”
Still, the Service Employees International Union has concerns — and expressed them in a March 29 letter to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“Millions of workers are on the job providing healthcare and essential services without the safety protections they need—when we put frontline workers at risk, we put our entire population’s health and safety in jeopardy,” the union said.
All Texas workers have a right to “work in a safe workplace, advocate for safer and better working conditions for you and your coworkers and be free from retaliation,” according to a factsheet by a group of nonprofit Texas law firms including Disability Rights Texas, Equal Justice Center and Lone Star Legal Aid.
“We’ve been gearing up for the last few weeks to respond to the new set of legal needs, employment-related legal needs arising from this crisis,” said Kathryn Youker, an attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. “The fallout in the workplace is so dramatic.”
Youker said workers can address safety concern to their employers. But if that's not enough, there are a number of legal protections available for janitors and other workers in the cleaning business.
The main protection is through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workers can submit a complaint online through OSHA’s website if they don’t feel safe at work. They can also file a retaliation claim 30 days after an incident occurs if they feel like they’re being singled out or punished for raising concerns.
Additionally, Youker said if employees raise safety concerns that affect at least two people at work, there are protections under the National Labor Relations Act. She said those who are retaliated against have six months to file an Unfair Labor Practice with the Labor Relations Board online.
“Both OSHA and the NLRB are relatively fast mechanisms for resolving complaints and resolving claims, much faster than going to court,” she said.
Youker said those who are fired in retaliation for filing safety concerns might be eligible to receive back pay and also have the opportunity for other changes in the workplace that could remedy the situation.
Rogge Dunn, a business and employment attorney in Dallas, said “there’s safety in numbers” and employees should express their concerns as a group. He said it prevents one employee from being singled out.
“It’s easy to fire or retaliate against one employee and make an example of them to send a shockwave message through the ranks,” he said. “But if 10 or 20 employees come forward with legitimate concerns over safety, quite literally the employer probably can’t fire them all.”
McCallum, with The Cleaning Guys, said he understands the difficult position many cleaning workers are in: They’re making do to get their next paycheck.
“They have a family to feed so they’re going to show up and try and do the best they can,” he said.
Beayala, the Houston janitor, isn’t just worried about her family — she’s also concerned about some of her colleagues. She says they should be at home, too.
“Respect older workers who do their work with love and pride,” she said. “Some of us have diabetes or are sick and so we have weaker defenses, so sending the workers home is giving them support.”
Resources For Cleaning Workers
Cleaning workers can check industry standards recommended on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s website, which can be shared with employers.
Kathryn Youker, an attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, suggests reaching out to an attorney and seeking free legal aid through organizations like the Equal Justice Center and The Workers Defense Project.
Youker said employees with disabilities should provide a written request for accommodation or leave to their employers. The evidence of communication, whether in the form of a text, email or pictures, can be useful in the long run, according to Youker.
“I would also explain why you feel the workplace is unsafe, that it’s unsafe not just for you but for your coworkers,” she said. “If you do these things, you’re going to have a number of laws that are coming into play and protect you.”
Employees with disabilities may have other protections under the law. Youker said those with disabilities are entitled to ask for accomodations and have a right not to be retaliated against, especially if they are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act or Rehabilitation Act.
Youker said employers that ignore the employee or take action against the worker would be putting themselves at risk for several liabilities.
Erick McCallum is owner and CEO of The Cleaning Guys, which worked on cleanup efforts in Dallas during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
McCallum said precautions begin with training employees for infectious disease and giving them the right personal protective equipment (PPE) that seals air gaps. They use full-face respirators with correct filters, not face shields or N-95 masks.
During cleanup, McCallum said his crews don’t just wipe down desks and chairs, but cover the entire cubic airspace of a room from the ceiling to the floor, including air systems.
McCallum said once the cleaning is finished, employees go through a carefully orchestrated process in which they spray themselves down with decontamination fluids to kill off anything on their gear and boots. Once they’ve been scrubbed and rinsed off, a second team removes the gear off of the individuals to avoid cross-contamination.
“This needs to be done everywhere, but that takes training,” McCallum said. “That takes time and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but a lot of hospitals and businesses, they look at the bottom line and when it comes to training, when it comes to stocking gear, having the appropriate stuff in place, it gets a little expensive.”
KERA's Stella Chavez and Jonathan Zapeta Sico translated for this story.