Custodial workers are on the front lines of the coronavirus, but some of them say they’re not being treated as such.
The union representing some of those workers says stressful conditions, a lack of personal protective equipment and no hazard pay have left them feeling scared to go to work.
“It’s a tale of two stories—when you look outside it’s peaceful,” said Rashawn Banks, an environmental service worker at Stroger Hospital. “But when you go into the hospital it’s a zoo. Where the hell are all these people coming from?”
Banks has worked at Stroger for about 15 years and says he’s never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic. He’s used to cleaning out rooms on the radiation floors for chemotherapy patients, but the pandemic has put the hospital staff in a different world. He said the reality of the situation hit him when he saw at least 10 people being rolled out for the morgue.
“Every day this has become the new normal—it’s put you in a paranoid state,” Banks said.
Sylvia Kizer is another environmental service worker at Stroger Hospital. She’s been at the hospital for over 25 years.
“Once I get home and I try and fall asleep, I wake up every hour because the closer I get to work my stomach gets upset,” Kizer said. “The stress level is so high but you try for it not to be seen.”
Both Banks and Kizer have seen a lag with getting proper personal protective equipment. Banks said he’s just starting to get the proper masks.
In a statement, Cook County Health, which manages Stroger Hospital, said:
“Using CDC protocols and guidance and building on Cook County Health’s standard infection control practices, CCH has been working since January to prepare our system and train our employees for this pandemic. We are immensely grateful to our team whose commitment to our patients has never been stronger.”
Kizer said she’s just been provided with blue masks, not the N-95 mask. While she’s not working on a COVID-19 floor, she’s nervous about cross-contamination and says it’s impossible to follow social distancing guidelines in that environment. She added that she’s not getting other protective gear, like foot covers or shields—she’s only wearing her regular uniform.
According to a statement from Cook County Health, “CCH is providing testing to any employee who has a clinical or epidemiological indication for testing.”
Banks said he has not heard of the hospital testing custodial workers.
“If they test us, they’d lose 90% of us and they would go into a crisis,” Banks said.
More than anything, Kizer said employees want hazard pay. She said they’re working out of their job description and working more because of the added precautions from COVID-19.
She said custodial employees aren’t treated as if they’re important.
“Cleaning people in the hospital are overlooked. People talk about nurses and doctors,” Banks said. “But we protect the people that protect you. We are front-line workers.”