On the US coronavirus front line: The life of a janitor

The work of custodians and janitors has become even more important – but most do it for low wages and without PPE.

US janitors custodians
The work of custodians and janitors has become even more important during the pandemic [File: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP]

Jackeline Bonett enters the lobby of a 17-storey office tower in downtown Miami, Florida, between 5:30 and 6pm every day, from Monday to Friday. There, a supervisor hands her the tools she will be using over the next four hours: two rags, two mop towels, and some gloves.

The 55-year-old janitor then pairs up with a colleague to clean two floors of offices.

“I’ll start cleaning the kitchen, the floors, the tables. I’ll take out the rubbish. I clean the refrigerator … We go out into the hallway; I’ll clean the hallway area, and then we go up to the next office on the next floor,” Bonett explains.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, janitorial workers in many places have been deemed essential workers – and Bonett and her colleagues have continued to work despite fears they could potentially contract the virus on the job.

Bonett is employed by a large cleaning services contractor in South Florida. She says she did not receive any special training to clean during the COVID-19 pandemic, nor has she been provided masks or hand sanitiser.

“We have masks because we bring them ourselves,” she tells Al Jazeera in Spanish through a translator. 

Bonett says she did not receive any special training to clean during the COVID-19 pandemi [Courtesy of Jackeline Bonett]
Bonett says she did not receive any special training to clean during the COVID-19 pandemi [Courtesy of Jackeline Bonett]

Being deemed essential has not improved her working conditions or her salary – she gets paid $8.56 an hour, the state’s minimum wage. “We are on a miserable salary for the hard work that we do. It is not just the salary; it is the miserable conditions that we’re working under. 

Bonett is not alone.

More than 40,000 janitors work in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach areas of southern Florida, according to a November 2019 report by SEIU Local 32BJ, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

Miami came in last among major US metropolitan areas for janitorial wages when compared with the cost of living, the report found, and 57 percent of office janitors in the Miami area lived at or below the poverty line.

This is the day in the life of one: office janitor Jaqueline Bonett.

The start of the shift: Insufficient supplies

It takes Bonett 90 minutes on a bus and a train to get to the office building from her home, a one-bedroom apartment she rents for $1,200 a month. She lives there with her husband and one of her three children.

“I help pay the rent and the other bills,” says Bonett, who arrived in Miami 11 years ago from her native Colombia. She also sends money back to Colombia to support her parents – her mother has a heart condition and her father has problems with his knees – and her two other children.

When she arrives at the building, she says the entire cleaning staff – about eight to 10 people – get into the same lift to go get their supplies in the lobby. They then go up to the floors they are assigned to clean that day.

“The rags look dirty,” she says. “We need more rags because we have so many things to clean. I have to wash the rags myself.” Bonett adds that during the pandemic, she has been bringing masks in for herself and her colleagues to use.

I feel like people sometimes look down on us. They look at us as if we're nothing.

by Jaqueline Bonett

In addition to her janitorial job, she also sews clothes at a Goodwill second-hand clothing store. She works from 7am to 3:30pm at Goodwill every weekday, and then goes to the office to clean until 10pm.

Recently, a colleague at Goodwill fell ill with coronavirus symptoms. “It felt like a bucket of cold water being thrown on me. I was thinking about my coworkers and my family. I was speechless,” says Bonett, about how she felt when she heard the news.

Even though her colleague did not have a confirmed case of COVID-19, Bonett – who does not have health insurance – says she decided to go into self-quarantine in case. She took 14 unpaid days off work, which put a strain on her family.

“Normally, I have to pay for my mom’s heart medicine, and I have to help my kids who right now don’t have jobs,” she says. “[When] I was self-quarantined, I couldn’t pay for any of this. I had to ask someone in Colombia for a loan to buy her [my mom’s] pills.

“I have a big responsibility with my parents and my family, but I still made that decision [to self-quarantine].”

The shift: ‘They look at us as if we’re nothing’

Bonett says that one of the biggest challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic is feeling unsupported at work. “They haven’t given us any kind of training, any discussion on social distancing,” she tells Al Jazeera.

“It would be nice if they would say, ‘Here’s a mask, here’s some training, here’s some hand-sanitiser’ – but nothing.”

While many of the offices she cleans every day are empty, and fewer people are in the building than before the coronavirus outbreak, Bonett says she feels “exposed” at work.

Custodians and janitors - US
A custodian cleans the lobby of the Roundabout Theatre Company in Times Square in New York [File: John Minchillo/AP Photo]

With a disease like COVID-19, which can spread easily and rapidly, janitors need to clean things even more thoroughly than before, she explains.

“Right now, it’s a lot of work. But once they reopen the economy, we’ll have more fear, more work, and we’ll need to clean things even better because we’re talking about 600 people that normally are in this building.”

She says that she and her colleagues need better cleaning materials, better pay and better protection to do their jobs properly. And even though they are considered essential workers, Bonett says it often does not feel like they are appreciated.

“I feel like people sometimes look down on us. They look at us as if we’re nothing,” she says.

“$8.56 an hour is not enough. You can imagine the number of hours that we need to work to survive. [We] should be [paid] extra because they need to recognise us and our value.”

On the front lines – A multipart series

Source: Al Jazeera