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Are housekeepers the forgotten essential workers?

Matilda Wormwood

Housekeepers, who are responsible for cleaning medical facilities, feel like they’ve been left out of the essential worker conversation — and are now missing out on the financial benefits of working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Katy Golvala to discuss her article, “Housekeepers know they’re essential. They want to get treated like it,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Katie. Who are housekeepers? Who are we talking about here?

KG: So housekeepers is the term used for janitorial staff that work in hospitals. So that is what the story is about.

WSHU: So what exactly do housekeepers do in hospitals? And why is this an issue, that they feel that they're not being treated as essential workers?

KG: Yeah, so housekeepers are a fundamental part of the staff at hospitals. They're the ones going into patient rooms every day to clean or they're cleaning hallways, common areas. And you can imagine how important it is that a hospital stays clean. But particularly during COVID, sanitation was such an important part of being able to get patients out so that they could get new patients in. So housekeepers really played a very important role in hospitals' ability to deal with COVID surges. You know, they are very much part of that group that we think of when we think of healthcare heroes. But most people associate that phrase with doctors and nurses. And I think it's such an extreme example of essential workers getting left behind. These are folks who were going into COVID patient rooms to clean them to make sure that they were safe and sanitary. And now these people are saying that they don't feel like they're getting some basic protections or the recognition that they deserve.

WSHU: Now, there was a lot of talk about protecting essential workers during COVID. At the height of the pandemic, it was seen a top priority to ensure that the essential workers were taken care of. Now, could you tell us what you found out about their experiences during the height of COVID? When they needed the personal protection gear and all the other things that were needed to be able to function?

KG: Yeah, so early on in the pandemic, when PPE was still quite difficult to get, they recounted using one mask per week in order to make it last. And then once PPE became more available, doctors and nurses were prioritized in receiving it. So housekeepers were sort of at the bottom of that list for receiving PPE.

WSHU: Okay, now, there was also supposed to be some special pay — some pandemic pay — how did that work out for housekeepers in hospitals?

KG: Yeah, that's exactly right. So at the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government made a big push saying that eventually they were going to extend premium pay, basically bonuses to essential workers who couldn't stay home and had to be on the frontlines of COVID. That eventually fell through, you know, that never came to be. So it fell to the states to enact this if they wanted to. Connecticut ended up enacting a $30 million pandemic premium pay program, October 1 is the deadline to apply for it. But folks in the world of labor, politicians, activists, etc., are really seeing that Connecticut's program is just way too little. So theoretically, this $30 million program was meant to give $1,000 grants to qualifying essential workers, but the amount that they receive is going to be dependent on the number of people who apply. So we got a huge spike in applications so that number might look more like $100 per person. So basically, just by simple math, $30 million allows for 30,000 grants of $1,000. Well, 255,000 people have already requested an application for this program. Many politicians have been outspoken about the need to increase the budget. So that's something we'll be watching for sure.

WSHU: So what we're looking at here is a situation where not everyone's gonna get something out of this $30 million that they have set aside right now. How are they even determining who will qualify for this? Since the money is not enough to cover everyone?

KG: Anyone who worked as an essential worker, qualifying essential worker, can go and apply for this program. And the idea is that everyone whose applications are accepted will receive some amount of money. So ultimately, it's just going to be the amount of money that is the question mark here.

WSHU: And also, there's a situation where a lot of these workers are leaving and they're quitting their jobs. So does it look as if we might have a problem filling housekeeping positions going into the future?

KG: Yeah, that's a good question. I think housekeepers are just seeing similar trends as the rest of the healthcare industry, which is they dealt with this life altering pandemic, that fundamentally changed the way they looked at their jobs. It changed what they were being asked to do, all of a sudden, they were being asked to risk their lives. So I think like with all healthcare employees, you have folks who are reevaluating whether that's a risk they're willing to take.

WSHU: Anything else that you think that we should know, that I might not have touched on?

KG: Yeah, I think there's just one other program that the state government has put in place, which is COVID sick time. And as opposed to pandemic premium pay, where most people agree that it's not enough to cover everyone who deserves it, COVID sick time is something people are really excited about. So it's a $34 million program that is going to reimburse workers for time they had to miss because of a COVID infection or reimburse them for medical expenses incurred as a result. And so this is a program folks are really excited about but for some reason, it's not catching on. So only 1.7% of the total $34 million budget has been paid out. Supporters generally agree that the application process is too complicated and that the program needs more effective marketing. So that's another program we'll be watching to see how those improvements unfold.

WSHU: So $34 million has been set aside for COVID sick time, and only 1.7% of it has been paid out?

KG: Yeah. Which is very, very low.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.