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Janitors Balance Overtime With Concern As Employers Promise More And Better Cleaning

Altaf Qadri
A passenger passes through a gate as a worker uses disinfectant to clean it as a precaution against COVID-19 at a metro station in New Delhi, India, Friday, March 13, 2020.

Cleaning companies have been in high-demand this week as employers across the region have moved non-essential workers off-site or adjusted hours and duties to ward off the spread of COVID-19.

So far, there are no cases of the coronavirus in Allegheny County, but businesses, elected officials and health care professionals are preparing for that eventuality.

SEIU 32BJ is a union representing about 23,000 service workers statewide, including janitors, food service workers and security guards.

For local cleaners, district director Sam Williamson says COVID-19 prep means extra hours wiping countertops, door handles and other surface areas, as well as more intensive cleaning jobs like top-to-bottom disinfecting. It's a boon to paychecks, but Williamson says cleaners are just as worried about potential exposure as everyone else.

"Planning for an active contagion is uncharted territory for us," he says. "People are going to need physical protection, masks, protective equipment, protective uniforms. We're working with employers to ensure that that equipment is made available to people so that they feel safe when they're coming to work."

While cleaners take on overtime, many cafeteria workers at local universities will be collecting no paycheck at all until staff and students return. Williamson says union leadership is trying to find alternative positions for those who are temporarily out of work.

Williamson, who's often at odds with building managers, says employers across the region have, so far, been great partners in figuring out how to address whatever comes next.

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