America's cleaners: fighting on the coronavirus front line

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It's been roughly two weeks since Amazon AMZN.O encouraged most employees at its Seattle headquarters to work remotely after one tested positive for coronavirus.

Larrilou Carumba, a cleaner who works in hotels, takes a selfie with her family as they shelter in a place in San Francisco, California, U.S., that is currently in lockdown due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the city March 17, 2020. Larrilou Carumba/Handout via REUTERS

Since then, Ismahan Ali and other janitors who clean the tech giant’s offices say they have been getting paid to work overtime to wipe down stairwells, conference rooms and other high-traffic areas.

Ali, 29, doesn’t clean the building where the infected Amazon employee worked, but she shares a break room with some janitors who do. So every cough or sneeze is a reminder that coronavirus could be lingering on a surface they’ve cleaned, or that one may already have been exposed, she said.

“Everyone is scared,” said Ali, who works for ABM, a maintenance and cleaning firm that employs more than 140,000 people. “We just keep going, let’s do what we can.”

For the three million janitors, housekeepers and maids across America, remote working is not an option. They are on the front line of the war against the virus, often working overnight and weekends to deep clean offices, airports and hotels.

Ali said at first she was not used to the stronger cleaning product she was asked to use as part of an enhanced cleaning protocol put in place because of the virus. The chemical irritated her eyes, throat and skin, but she has since been provided with goggles and a mask, which she said is helping.

ABM did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.

A spokeswoman for Ali’s union, Service Employees International Union Local 6, said ABM had been responsive to its concerns and has committed to providing janitors with more protective gear and training. A janitor with experience of using stronger chemicals is also now providing guidance to other staff at Amazon, the union representative said.

Amazon said safety was a top priority and that it had notified employees and service providers, including janitors, who may have been in close contact with its employee who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Amazon also said it was committed to paying hourly workers who cannot come to work because of coronavirus.

“We continue to pay all hourly employees that support our offices around the world – from food service, to security guards to janitorial staff – during the time our employees are asked to work from home,” an Amazon representative said in a statement.


Other cleaning professionals have seen demand for their services dry up as major events are canceled, malls and movie theaters close, and business travel is put on hold.

Those working in the hospitality and entertainment industry have been hit hard, with lost wages adding a new layer of uncertainty to their already precarious financial lives.

Earlier this month, Larrilou Carumba, a 47-year-old housekeeper at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis hotel, applied to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

But then she got her work schedule: she wasn’t needed for at least two weeks. Suddenly unsure of when her next paycheck would land, she withdrew her application.

“I’m more afraid about my bills than the coronavirus,” she said, adding that she would struggle to afford groceries, her car payments and insurance, and other outgoings. “Being a single mom, you live paycheck to paycheck.”

Janitors earned a median hourly wage of $12.55 in 2018 while housekeepers made $11.43. Low-wage workers without unions are also less likely to have fundamental health benefits, including health insurance or sick leave, according to surveys from the Economic Policy Institute.

Think-tank Pew Research Center estimates here more than a third of cleaners and maintenance workers in America are immigrants.

“I’m going to keep cleaning because I have to help my family,” said Ali, who is studying to become a nurse and sends money to her family in Somalia. “I don’t have a choice to stay home. I have to go.”


Hotel companies are reeling from a sharp drop in business over the past couple of weeks as conferences are canceled, vacations scrapped and casinos shut down.

Occupancies in the second week of March were 24.4% lower than the same week last year, according to data firm STR. Of the 25 markets it studied, the San Francisco region reported the second biggest hit to occupancy, which fell by 51.6% from 2019.

“Our industry is falling off a cliff,” said D. Taylor, president of the UNITE HERE, a union that represents about 300,000 members in the hotel, gaming, food, transport and other service industries in the United States and Canada.

Taylor said hospitality workers were under significant pressure as schools close, and traffic at hotels, casinos and airports plummets. He is advocating for more workers to receive paid sick leave so they can afford to stay home if they are unwell, or need to be quarantined.

For people who are laid off, the union is pushing for fast access to unemployment benefits and extended access to health insurance. “The coronavirus is a pretty scary thing and often our folks are on the front lines,” Taylor said.

Marriott International MAR.O said a significant drop in demand worldwide was forcing it take remedial measures.

“Unfortunately, occupancy dictates staffing levels - we are adjusting global operations accordingly and working quickly to mitigate the impact to our business,” it said in a statement.

U.S. regulators and lawmakers are considering different options that could provide relief to low-income workers affected by the pandemic, including leniency with loans, expanding unemployment benefits and providing other financial assistance.

After withdrawing her bid for the apartment, Carumba submitted a different application - for unemployment benefits.

She is still waiting to hear whether she will get any assistance until she can return to work.

“I have a strong faith that this will end,” she said. “I just don’t know when.”

Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Heather Timmons and David Clarke