Cleaners: The unsung front line workers of COVID-19 response

Coronavirus

Workers in the cleaning industry adapt to a changing market as an 'essential service'

PORTLAND, Ore. — Janitors, custodians and housekeepers are on the front lines of coronavirus pandemic response, but assume their duties somewhat thanklessly.

Thomas White, a career cleaner, says he’s well aware of how uncommon acts of gratitude are in his field.

“Granted, the firemen, the police and ambulance, paramedics, nurses and doctors, yeah they’re on this stuff. They’re facing it,” White said. “But us in the janitorial, custodial or housekeeping trade — which is all cleaning — we’re facing this thing with a spray bottle and rag trying to keep everyone safe from it.”

White was a janitor at Multnomah Athletic Club and quit recently for personal reasons unrelated to COVID-19. He said it’s been difficult trying to find work elsewhere since the pandemic’s enormous spread.

Jenna Vreugdenhill is the project manager for PDX Cleaning, a company that’s been able to adapt to a post-COVID-19 world as an essential service without laying off employees.

She said many of their commercial clients, such as stores and gyms, have had to pause their janitorial work. At the same time, other clients have increased services in response to the virus.

“We have had a lot of one time cleans come up for commercial but also residential cleans of people who either think that they have had COVID-19, or think they might’ve been in touch with COVID-19 or just have had a cold and want to take precautions and just completely disinfect the space,” Vreugdenhil said.

PDX Cleaning has been able to stock up on all the necessary gear, including hazmat suits and masks, in case any COVID-related clean job should arise. At the same time, the company’s office staff is now largely working from home. All of the cleaners within the company’s 25 teams have managed to stay healthy, Vreugdenhil said.

“We check up on their health and safety all the time.”

When asked if she thinks janitors should get more recognition in this trying time, Vreugdenhil said most of the janitors she’s familiar with “are usually the most hard-working people that I know,” and would never complain about lack of recognition.

“It would be nice for them to be able to get that recognition, I think. Because they’re cleaning up after people’s stuff to be able to make sure that you eventually can go back to your office and not work from home anymore,” Vreugdenhil said.

“Give credit and give thanks once in a while. It doesn’t hurt,” White said.

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