What It’s Like To Clean Hospitals In The Coronavirus Pandemic

Ezzie Dominguez is a night cleaner in Denver. She’s terrified, but needs to make money for her family.

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Photo: Courtesy of Ezzie Dominguez.
Care workers are the invisible workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis. They are cleaners, nannies, and caregivers. Their work is critical and yet they are unseen, underpaid, and undervalued. Through Caring Through Coronavirus — our partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the nation’s leading organization for the respect and dignity of domestic workers — we are looking at life in the coronavirus pandemic for real domestic workers today. Ai-jen Poo, the director of the Alliance, will be interviewing the workers.
Name: Ezzie Dominguez
Occupation: Building manager, night cleaner
Age: 38
Gender Identity: Woman
Location: Denver
What kind of work do you do, and are you still working through the stay-at-home order in Denver?
"I'm considered an 'essential worker,' so I never stopped working. I’m a four-time cancer survivor, which makes me immunocompromised. I’m terrified of getting infected or bringing coronavirus home to my two children, who are two-and-a-half and 15 years old, and my husband who is with them during the day. But I have to work to support my family with the basics: food, rent, bills.
"During the day, I'm a building manager for a coworking space, where I work from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. I’m so grateful for that job because that is the only steady income I have coming in right now. They also pay for medical insurance for me and my children; without that I would not have anything. Most tenants are working from home now, but I still need to go in every day and maintain the building, sanitize the mail, and make sure that everything is still working.
"In the evenings, I work as a cleaner for a big company that gets contract cleaning jobs and subcontracts them out to workers like me. We get texts in the evenings that tell us where to go and how many buildings there are, but we usually don’t know what kind of place we are cleaning until we get there.
"There is so much more contract cleaning work now. I used to work as a nanny in the afternoons and a house cleaner on the weekends before companies started asking employees to work from home, but my employer doesn’t need me now. And since everyone is working from home, there are no house-cleaning jobs either. My husband lost his two jobs — he was fired from the restaurant he has been working at for 20 years and he was laid off temporarily from his janitorial job — so I’m the only one working in the house right now. That’s why I started going out at night after my little one is asleep to clean buildings."
Why is there such an increase in contract cleaning work under coronavirus?
"So many companies have fired their employees as a result of the crisis. Now, they have no one to do their janitorial work, so they’re turning to contracted companies. It’s created a kind of black market in cleaning work. They get jobs to sanitize school cafeterias, grocery stores, hospitals, and courthouses, and they send out texts and gather up a crew and pay us $10 an hour in cash. That’s not even the minimum wage in Colorado [Ed. note: That's $12 an hour.], which is why the work of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and my local affiliate Centro Humanitario is so important to make sure domestic workers are getting fair wages.
"If you pick up other workers and bring them with you, you’ll be paid an extra $2 an hour, but then you could be exposing yourself to coronavirus by having people you don’t know in your car. They are exploiting the cleaning workers, but what can we say or do? We need the money to take care of and feed our families."
Do you feel safe continuing to work? Does the company you work for take any safety precautions?
"I feel very safe at my day job, but not at the nighttime cleaning job. I’m terrified to go. This week, I went to the address they gave us to clean and it turned out to be a hospital. They gave us boot protectors to put over our shoes, one pair of gloves, and a little apron to put over our clothing. That was it. I asked for a face mask, but they said I had a bandana so I could just use that. They gave us the chemicals, a mop, and a map of the floors and told us which rooms to go to. They wouldn’t tell us if the floors we were going to had patients infected with coronavirus. They just say, 'We’ll come and get you in a couple hours,' and that was it."
How are you keeping your family safe? 
"Every night when I go out I’m scared of touching something and being infected with coronavirus because I’m immunocompromised. I bring my own gloves, sanitizer, and use a bandana to cover my face. I’m mostly scared of bringing anything home with me to my family, and possibly passing the virus to my husband and children. So, as soon as I walk in the door, I strip off all my clothes, clean everything I can, and then I shower for almost an hour with hot water and disinfecting soap. I scrub my hands until they bleed, and my skin just hurts from being so ravaged by the chemicals and bleach I have to clean with. Other than that, what else can I do? I have to work to pay my bills and take care of my family. I risk my life going to clean each night, but I risk our lives if I don’t. This is how I can keep my family safe, by keeping them at home and providing everything they need to stay there."
What do you want other people to know about your experience amid this crisis?
"There are many workers on the frontlines whom you don’t see — who are risking their lives so that you can be safe. People you don’t see who are sanitizing your mail so you aren’t infected with coronavirus. Workers caring for others, nannies taking care of children, healthcare personnel. When you go to the hospital, someone has already come in at night and cleaned the equipment and sanitized the tables so you can be safe. We see the medical personnel there working, some are tired and sleeping wherever they can. But I think workers like cleaners who come at night and leave before anyone sees them are at the forefront of everything. We clean all the spaces that people still need to get access to even while exposing ourselves, while risking our lives, sacrificing our families and our health. We’ve been doing this when nobody is paying attention because we don't have access to things others do, such as healthcare, insurance, paid time off, and internet at home. Work from home is a luxury we cannot afford, but we are human beings with voices and families, and we are being treated as if we are invisible and disposable.
"And I want them to know: If you can stay home, stay home. If I could stay at home with my kids, I would, but I don’t have that option. Many of us don’t have that option." 
If you would like to support domestic workers, you can donate to the Coronavirus Care Fund, which is providing domestic workers who apply with $400 in emergency assistance.

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