As health-care systems worldwide continue to battle the novel coronavirus pandemic, doctors and nurses are deservedly seen as heroes. But hospital cleaners, who also serve on the frontlines, don’t get nearly as much acclaim.
While cleaners suited up in surgical masks, medical gowns and gloves may look indistinguishable from other medical staff — and indeed resemble a “Ghostbusters”-esque cleanup crew — few grew up aspiring to become professional germ hunters. But they take pride in making sure they leave a space behind that is both clean and safe.
‘The nurses and doctors here are phenomenal. They’re exhausted but keep working because they want to do the best for their patients. So do I.’
“I like the way a space looks beautiful when I’m done cleaning but I’ve never really thought about [hunting] germs,” says Don LeBlanc, Jr., a cleaner at Southlake Regional Health Centre, which is located about 35 miles north of Toronto and serves as a COVID-19 assessment center.
LeBlanc makes about $25 Canadian dollars, roughly $17.30, an hour — which he says is about one or two dollars more than he would earn working as a school janitor. He also gets a pension through his hospital worker’s union. “I’m not going to be rich, but I can manage to live, no problem,” says LeBlanc.
Cleaning a hospital can offer better compensation than comparable janitorial work in a non-medical setting. The median wage for a janitor in the U.S. in 2018 was $12.55 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While the shutdown of many businesses globally has led to mass layoffs of cleaning staff, skilled sanitation engineers have fared better as hospitals prepare for a deluge of COVID-19 cases. “I’m working a lot more,” says LeBlanc, who cleans everything from operating theaters to patient wards during his usual 6 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift. “Now, it’s sometimes 10 hours or 12 hours [per day].”
LeBlanc joined the hospital after working for over two decades processing credit applications at the Canadian bank TD. He rents a small house that he shares with his two teenage sons that stay with him every other week.
Cleaning at home? Bleach wipes are ideal, but Lysol works too. Put all your used cleaning wipes in one garbage bag. Don’t leave them in the regular trash.
He’s unable to get full-time employment at the hospital, which makes his financial position more precarious, he says. “But I really enjoy what I do,” he adds. That said, he hopes to be able to shift to another job in a hospital — transporting passengers or processing them — at some point. “As you get older, the physical stuff is hard.”
He describes the hospital as quiet and clean as it no longer has visiting hours for patients. “I’m not used to that because there’s usually a lot of traffic in and out,” he says. “Our outlook is very positive. The frontline staff — nurses, doctors — are all supporting each other.”
He offers advice for consumers trying to keep your own home sanitary in this New Normal: Bleach wipes are ideal,he says, but Lysol RB, +2.70% can also help combat viruses. Use it on all touch surfaces, such as door knobs, the counter top and anything in the bathroom.
Get rid of the wipes by putting them all in one garbage bag and then disposing of them, Le Blanc adds. Don’t leave them in the regular trash, he adds. If you use bleach regularly, he says remember to wear a mask as you don’t want constant exposure to the fumes.
LeBlanc is fortunate to specialize in medical cleaning during this pandemic. Companies that don’t deal exclusively with hospitals have obviously seen a downturn in business since social-distancing guidelines where introduced in many cities and states across the country. “The majority of our business is on pause,” says Charles Gough, president of No More Dirt, a cleaning company in the San Francisco Bay Area that services medical facilities.
The Trump administration is under pressure from first responders to use the Defense Production Act to compel factories to make masks and gloves.
Hospital cleaners, meanwhile, are often trained to a higher degree than other janitors. Southlake Regional Health Centre trained LeBlanc on how to use personal-protection equipment and on the specifications of certain chemicals for about six weeks before he started his job two years ago. There are also regular online-refresher courses.
Employees train to disinfect a medical facility to Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, which can involve learning how to deal with bloodborne pathogens like coronavirus and biohazards, generally get a higher rate. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially in the age of coronavirus. “For lot of folks, it’s their first step into the economy in terms of a job,” Gough adds.
Some of No More Dirt’s staff, for instance, are taught how to use electrostatic sprayers. The equipment adds an electric charge to liquid chemical droplets, which manufacturers say leads to more efficient cleaning. “It’s a more comprehensive sanitization as compared to just wiping down a surface,” Gough adds.
Before U.S. cleaning firms can ramp up hospital services, however, they will need to address the shortfall of personal protection equipment. Gough says his company’s “biggest challenge” right now is securing the personal protection equipment necessary for the cleaners in medical facilities to perform the work. “Our management is very busy trying to secure supplies,” he adds.
The biggest challenge for some cleaning companies is securing the personal protection equipment necessary for the cleaners in medical facilities.
The Trump administration has been under pressure from first responders and mayors to use the Defense Production Act to compel U.S. factories to make masks and gloves. President Trump announced Friday he would invoke the act to require General Motors GM, -0.28% make ventilators, but has not said he would use the act to produce protective equipment.
Southlake has organized another class for its staff to retrain them on the use of produce protective equipment. LeBlanc says that one mistake people often make is forgetting to change their germy gloves when they remove their other, more obvious, equipment. “I’ve seen in the past, people take everything off but leave the gloves on,” he says. “You don’t want that.”
And while doctors and white-collar health-care professionals are likely to have good health insurance and other benefits, that isn’t necessarily the case for hospital cleaners. As a part-timer, LeBlanc only gets benefits if he pays into a specific scheme. “That kind of scares me,” he says.
LeBlanc sometimes thinks about his daughter, who he lost to cancer, while cleaning the hospital. “I have two boys and I don’t want them to get sick. That’s why I do what I do,” he says. “The nurses and doctors here are phenomenal. They’re exhausted but keep working because they want to do the best for their patients. So do I.”