They clean the buildings workers are fleeing. But who’s protecting them?
The rumor unsettled Deborah Santamaria.
A fellow janitor at 555 California Street, a 52-story office tower in San Francisco’s financial district, told her he heard that a floor of the building was being closed because a worker had contracted the novel coronavirus. At 63, Santamaria counted herself among those most vulnerable to a virus that had killed thousands worldwide and was rapidly spreading across the United States.
Her supervisor at Able Services, the contractor that employs her, reassured her that nothing was wrong, she said.
It was not until five days later that a news article appeared saying that Wells Fargo had temporarily evacuated its offices in the building after an employee had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The bank had notified building management, which alerted the cleaning contractor. But according to the employees and their union representatives, no one had told the janitors.
“I felt as if I didn’t matter,” said Santamaria, who earns $22 an hour.
While many Americans are fleeing their offices to avoid any contact with the coronavirus, low-wage janitors are sometimes being asked to do the opposite. Although millions of Californians have been ordered to shelter in place, janitors are still being asked to go into offices to battle the invisible germs that threaten public health, even as those germs, and the new, powerful cleaning solutions they are being asked to use, may endanger their own health.
They often operate without specialized protective gear. And the increasing demand for their services is adding new stress and risks.
Janitors cleaning the Amazon headquarters in Seattle complained that a new disinfectant they were asked to use made their eyes and skin burn. In San Francisco, janitors said they have been asked to clean offices without having been told that people who had or were exposed to the virus had worked there.
Janitors wonder why they are left in the dark when companies go to great lengths to ensure that the tech, finance and other workers occupying the buildings they clean are aware of the most remote possibility of coming into contact with the virus. It shows, they say, how disparities play out in a public health crisis — how their lives sometimes seem to be valued less than those of people with resources and power.
“None of our families should be treated as second-class citizens,” Olga Miranda, the president of the Service Employees International Union Local 87, told the janitors at 555 California last week. She had gathered the largely immigrant work force in a plaza in front of the building and told them to walk off the job to protest the cleaning company’s failure to notify them about the coronavirus case.
“How are we supposed to know that the companies respect us when they’re not even telling us what’s going on in the building,” she said.
Miranda on Tuesday asked her members to start staying home, even though office buildings remained open. She said the union was concerned about exposing workers to health and public safety risks, including encounters with law enforcement officers enforcing the shelter-in-place order.
Able Services executives did not respond to multiple telephone calls and text messages. On its website, the company said, “We advocate for our employees’ health and safety, through consistent training and education, meetings, communications and encouraging involvement in the development and implementation of our health and safety program.”
A spokeswoman for Wells Fargo said that on March 5, the company told the landlord at 555 California that one of its employees was suspected of having the virus. Wells Fargo brought in a specialized cleaning company that night to clean the floor it occupied, the 23rd, and told its employees to work from home the following day. The employee tested positive on March 7, and Wells Fargo also relayed that information to the landlord, Vornado Realty Trust.
A spokeswoman for Vornado said the company notified Able Services of the potential infection on March 5, the same day it found out from Wells Fargo. That day, Able Services told the two janitors who usually clean the 23rd floor not to work there but offered no explanation, the janitors said in interviews. Able did not say anything to the rest of its janitors, according to the union president.
Although she did not work on the 23rd floor, Santamaria said all the janitors deserved to know if there was a coronavirus case in the building so they could take extra precautions. The job is already one that takes a toll on their health. Santamaria has leg and knee problems. The pain is sometimes so bad at night that she cannot sleep. The only safety equipment she wears to clean are gloves, she said.
“That’s really irresponsible if they know that there’s a case,” said Santamaria, who has worked as a janitor in the United States since fleeing the civil war in her native Nicaragua more than three decades ago.
San Francisco officials issued an order this month requiring the enhanced cleaning of homeless shelters and single-room-occupancy buildings. But in calling for the increased cleaning, officials also set safety standards for the workers who will be doing the cleaning.
City officials recently met with leaders of the janitors’ union to review guidelines that the public health authorities developed for protecting cleaners, said Jeff Cretan, a spokesman for Mayor London Breed of San Francisco. The information was also provided to building representatives, he said, and city leaders were working with both sides to ensure that janitors are properly trained and kept safe.
Building owners and cleaning companies across the city need “to be 100% transparent with their employees” about the conditions they are encountering, said Aaron Peskin of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
“If they’re not, they’re going to be morally or legally liable,” he said.
Rocio Sáenz, the executive vice president of the SEIU, the largest union of janitors in North America with more than 160,000 cleaners in over 30 cities, said the union was calling for increased training and the wider availability of proper safety gear for janitors.
On March 10, about 10 janitors who clean Amazon’s Seattle headquarters as contractors were exposed to an unfamiliar cleaning solution that sent some spilling into the street coughing, said one of the janitors. Amazon confirmed that the incident took place but declined to comment on it.
Ismaham Ali, 29, has been cleaning Amazon offices for the past four years using mostly gentle green cleaning products. But now, as companies look to mitigate coronavirus risks, the janitors are being asked to use more serious hospital-grade disinfectants with little or no additional training or safety equipment.
“They just said, ‘Hey guys, corona’s scary, use this,’” said Ali, who said she was provided with the new disinfectant this month. Another janitor who leads chemical safety trainings for janitors who work at Amazon said the new disinfectant was Virex II 256.
“They didn’t say be careful or anything,” Ali said. “They didn’t mention anything.” Ali said that within an hour of using the new cleaning compound, her face became hot and her eyes red. Her eyes and skin began to burn, she said, and she developed a rash on her face. She said that there was a sheet with safety instructions but that she did not understand them all.
The next day, she said, the crew was given eye protection and training.
An Amazon spokesman said janitors were being provided with health and safety trainings for the enhanced cleaning procedures.
Sales of Virex II 256 have increased exponentially in the past few days, said Peter Teska, the infection prevention application expert for Diversey, the South Carolina-based company that makes the solution. But training has to keep pace with the demand, he said.
“You have to be more careful,” Teska said. “The workers are probably also spending a bigger portion of their day doing cleaning activities.”
Elizabeth Carrion said she found it strange when her supervisor asked her to use a disinfectant she had never used before to reclean the 23rd floor at an office building on Sansome Street in San Francisco on a recent afternoon.
Carrion, 48, who asked that her middle name and married name be used for this article, already had cleaned the floor once that day, she said. The only explanation she was given for the second cleaning was something vague about taking extra precautions because of the coronavirus.
As she cleaned, her supervisor called again, and this time his voice sounded more urgent: Leave the floor immediately, he said. He refused to say why, Carrion said, and told her to wait in the break room. Her heart sank as she pieced together the possibilities in her head. Was there someone on the 23rd floor with the coronavirus, she wondered. Was she now infected?
A different supervisor later met her and several other janitors in the break room and told them that employees of Citigroup on the 23rd floor might have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus.
“I felt like a bolt, like a shock,” she said. “What I was processing was I already had it just by having been on that floor.”