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'We're Heroes, Too:' Hospital Janitors ‘Risk Lives To Stop Spread Of COVID-19’

Published Wednesday, June 17, 2020
by Lindsay Schnell/USA TODAY
'We're Heroes, Too:' Hospital Janitors ‘Risk Lives To Stop Spread Of COVID-19’

Luis Padilla, 46, stood in line at McDonald’s, excited to order his free meal.

Earlier that week, the chain announced it would give Thank You meals To Front Line Workers battling the Coronavirus.

Padilla, who has spent the last three years as an Environmental Service Tech at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center – the technical term for a Hospital Custodian – was thrilled his work was being acknowledged.

Then he got to the register

The cashier glanced at Padilla’s work badge and waved him away

“This is ‘not’ for you,” Padilla recalls the cashier saying. “This ‘is for’ Doctors, Nurses and Police.  ‘Don’t be trying to get free food.’”

Padilla was crushed.

“No one ‘is thinking about Custodians at all,’” he said as he recounted the incident. “People ‘have no idea what we do.’  ‘We’re not just picking up trash.’”

Across the country, as millions open their doors and windows every night to cheer Doctors and Nurses battling a deadly pandemic, people like Padilla operate in the shadows

They work the same 12-hour shifts, using special training to ensure hospitals stay clean, but for considerably less pay and sometimes without the same protective gear given to Doctors and Nurses.

Environmental Service Workers “are such an integral part of the whole health care team,” said Jane Hopkins, the Executive Vice President of Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) Northwest Chapter. “In a hospital, ‘they’re just as important as a Doctor - they’re just doing a completely different job.’” 

The Union represents about 32,000 Nurses, Health Care Workers and Behavioral Health Workers in Washington State.  

About 1,500 are Environmental Service Workers.

Many are Black or Latino, which likely contributes to these Workers being overlooked, Hopkins said: “We ‘talk about heroes, but we don’t talk about them.’  ‘Decades of institutionalized racism and socially acceptable racism has made it seem like their jobs are not important.’”

Language is often a barrier for Environmental Service Workers, Hopkins said, because so many are Immigrants.

Unions must remind hospitals to distribute instructions and safety protocols in a multitude of languages to keep Workers and patients safe, Hopkins said. 

“It ‘does not matter where you work in the hospital,’” Hopkins said. “You ‘need’ to be protected.”

The Coronavirus has killed more than 421,000 people worldwide and more than 113,000 in the U.S. alone, but Hospital Custodians said they are not always given proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 

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