work

Worried Cleaners Take Front Line Positions in Fight Against Virus

Cleaners have been on the front lines of workers during the coronavirus outbreak.
Cleaners have been on the front lines of workers during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Mircea Moira/Shutterstock

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Malick Coulibaly cleans the clinic at the NYU College of Dentistry at night. He mops the blood-speckled floor, waxes, buffs, scrubs, cleans glasses, and clears the garbage left from the day’s procedures.

His job of 16 years has always been hard, he says. It didn’t feel dangerous, though, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are very, very worried,” said Coulibaly, 63. “Of course, you think about germs, when you have garbage, all those hazards.”

In the past, the dental school had plenty of masks, but they have disappeared. Now he scours the cubicles for one left behind on a desk or a chair.

“You grab it, and say, ‘Thank God, I found one,’” he said.

Cleaners like Coulibaly now find themselves on the front line in the citywide rush to disinfect shared spaces amid the coronavirus crisis.

With so many businesses closed, steady traditional janitorial and housekeeping work has dried up for some. Meanwhile, there’s been a swell of cleaning jobs, often employing dangerous cleaning agents.

The shifting dynamic has turned the cleaning game inside out for everyone from union janitors to day laborers to housekeepers. Some cleaners find themselves braving exposure to coronavirus — and harsh chemicals — to feed their families.

Less Cleaning, More Disinfecting

Long Island-based Imperial Cleaning Company, which works mostly in the city, received 300 requests for disinfecting work over two weeks, compared to about 30 in an entire regular flu season, company president David Feldman said.

Cleaners for a Manhattan real estate firm said they had to ask for social distancing guidance from the company. Photo: Heller Turbi

Clients are also looking to incorporate disinfection, usually a one-time job, into their regular cleaning schedules.

“We at this point can’t keep up with the demand that we’re getting for these services,” Feldman told THE CITY, adding his company is making requests from medical facilities a priority.

Prior to the pandemic, approximately 70% of Imperial’s business involved nightly cleanup in stores that are now shuttered, Feldman estimated.

Despite the surge in demand for disinfection, Feldman said he had to lay off the majority of his mostly part-time 500-person workforce because of an equipment shortage.

The coronavirus jobs require a specialized tool called an electrostatic sprayer, he said.

He only has six and has been unable to find more.

‘A Perfect Storm’

Advocates for immigrant day laborers say construction and landscaping jobs have given way to pickups for cleaning tasks at offices, gyms and stores, with less total work available.

Manuel Castro, the executive director of the Jackson Heights-based nonprofit New Immigrant Community Empowerment, is concerned that the shortage of regular work combined with rushed disinfection jobs will lead to danger for day laborers.

It’s “a perfect storm for there to be exploitation of workers,” he said.

But, Castro added, “it’s hard to tell workers not to go on the cleaning jobs if that’s all that’s available.”

A recent analysis by THE CITY found that New York’s sickest neighborhoods are home to large numbers of people working in construction, food service, janitorial services and other jobs that continued well into the outbreak.

And many day laborers are undocumented immigrants who are excluded from unemployment benefits, noted Yesenia Mata, the executive director of Staten Island-based workers’ rights nonprofit La Colmena.

“But they’re not being included in these emergency relief funds, both state and city level, and at this point in essence, they’re just left alone,” she said.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has proposed an emergency economic relief fund, in partnership with private partners, in order to circumvent federal restrictions.

“[B]asic safety net protections must extend to New Yorkers regardless of immigration status, including those who are undocumented,” the report says.

Neither the state nor city has acted yet on that proposal.

Home Appointments Cancelled

Reyna Tellez, a 38-year-old mother of two young boys who lives in Jackson Heights, would usually tidy homes for clients in Flushing, Astoria, Williamsburg and Clinton Hill.

But this month her livelihood evaporated.

“I think they stopped calling because with all this fear with the virus, they just want to protect themselves. I get that,” Tellez told THE CITY in Spanish.

Only one client, the Clinton Hill family, paid her regular daily rate — $80 — after asking her not to come in. They haven’t called since, and the rest of her clients haven’t contacted her or answered her calls.

“Who’s going to feed my kids? How am I supposed to pay my rent?” she asked. “The uncertainty is killing me.”

A Persistent Problem

The virus that causes COVID-19 can live on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to two or three days and can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

If a building is unoccupied, then any virus that could linger from previous tenants should no longer be infectious after a few days, according to Dr. Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Occupied buildings pose a slightly higher risk, but most standard cleaning fluids would eliminate the virus effectively, he said.

Still, Morse warned, “I wouldn’t get my face too close to a surface I’m cleaning, just as a precaution. Also be careful cleaning toilets.”

While the chemicals that cleaners use work well to kill the virus, they can be a hazard unto themselves, work safety experts say.

Deborah Berkowitz, a former Occupational Safety and Health Administration official now with the National Employment Law Project, said cleaners must be educated about the “very dangerous” chemicals they use and be provided gloves they can frequently change.

“You have to follow the guidelines and OSHA standards so that the cleaners themselves don’t get poisoned or even killed by the substances they use,” she said. “Especially if it’s people that haven’t done this before.”

Sick at Home

Two weeks ago, Heller Turbi, an industrial cleaner for a real estate company, was more worried about the sting of a harsh disinfectant she’s allergic to than catching coronavirus.

“When you use it over and over again it’s suffocating, it makes your nose itch,” she said in Spanish.

On March 20, however, Turbi and a coworker were informed they’d been exposed to COVID-19 after cleaning the office of someone who had tested positive for the illness.

They were told to self-isolate for 14 days. Turbi and her coworkers, who are members of the union SEIU 32BJ, got their employer to agree to social distancing protocols and paid sick leave for the period of quarantine.

Two days later, Turbi began experiencing a fever, body aches, and chest pain.

Her doctor told her to stay home, unless symptoms worsen.

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