/Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘I’m not going to be rich, but I can manage to live.’ Meet the hospital cleaner on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic

Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘I’m not going to be rich, but I can manage to live.’ Meet the hospital cleaner on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic


As health-care systems worldwide continue to battle the novel coronavirus pandemic, doctors and nurses are deservedly seen as heroes. But hospital cleaners, who also serve on the frontlines, don’t get nearly as much acclaim.

While cleaners suited up in surgical masks, medical gowns and gloves may look indistinguishable from other medical staff — and indeed resemble a “Ghostbusters”-esque cleanup crew — few grew up aspiring to become professional germ hunters. But they take pride in making sure they leave a space behind that is both clean and safe.

“I like the way a space looks beautiful when I’m done cleaning but I’ve never really thought about [hunting] germs,” says Don LeBlanc, Jr., a cleaner at Southlake Regional Health Centre, which is located about 35 miles north of Toronto and serves as a COVID-19 assessment center.

‘The nurses and doctors here are phenomenal. They’re exhausted but keep working because they want to do the best for their patients. So do I.’


—Don LeBlanc, Jr., a cleaner at Southlake Regional Health Centre

LeBlanc makes about $25 Canadian dollars, roughly $17.30, an hour — which he says is about one or two dollars more than he would earn working as a school janitor. He also gets a pension through his hospital worker’s union. “I’m not going to be rich, but I can manage to live, no problem,” says LeBlanc.

Cleaning a hospital can offer better compensation than comparable janitorial work in a non-medical setting. The median wage for a janitor in the U.S. in 2018 was $12.55 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the shutdown of many businesses globally has led to mass layoffs of cleaning staff, skilled sanitation engineers have fared better as hospitals prepare for a deluge of COVID-19 cases. “I’m working a lot more,” says LeBlanc, who cleans everything from operating theaters to patient wards during his usual 6 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift. “Now, it’s sometimes 10 hours or 12 hours [per day].”

Companies that don’t deal exclusively with hospitals have obviously seen a downturn in business since social-distancing guidelines where introduced in many cities and states across the country. “The majority of our business is on pause,” says Charles Gough, president of No More Dirt, a cleaning company in the San Francisco Bay Area that services medical facilities.

Don LeBlanc, Jr., a cleaner at Southlake Regional Health Centre, which serves as a COVID-19 assessment center: ‘I’m working a lot more. Now, it’s sometimes 10 hours or 12 hours [per day].’

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Hospital cleaners, meanwhile, are often trained to a higher degree than other janitors. Southlake Regional Health Centre trained LeBlanc on how to use personal-protection equipment and on the specifications of certain chemicals for about six weeks before he started his job two years ago. There are also regular online-refresher courses.

Case in point: Employees train to disinfect a medical facility to Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, which can involve learning how to deal with bloodborne pathogens like coronavirus and biohazards, generally get a higher rate. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially in the age of coronavirus. “For lot of folks, it’s their first step into the economy in terms of a job,” Gough adds.

Some of No More Dirt’s staff, for instance, are taught how to use electrostatic sprayers. The equipment adds an electric charge to liquid chemical droplets, which manufacturers say leads to more efficient cleaning. “It’s a more comprehensive sanitization as compared to just wiping down a surface,” Gough adds.

The Trump administration has been under pressure from first responders and mayors to use the Defense Production Act to compel U.S. factories to make masks and gloves.

Before U.S. cleaning firms can ramp up hospital services, however, they will need to address the shortfall of personal protection equipment. Gough says his company’s “biggest challenge” right now is securing the personal protection equipment necessary for the cleaners in medical facilities to perform the work. “Our management is very busy trying to secure supplies,” he adds.

The Trump administration has been under pressure from first responders and mayors to use the Defense Production Act to compel U.S. factories to make masks and gloves. President Trump announced Friday he would invoke the act to require General Motors

GM, -0.28%

 make ventilators, but has not said he would use the act to produce protective equipment.

And while doctors and white-collar health-care professionals are likely to have good health insurance and other benefits, that isn’t necessarily the case for hospital cleaners. As a part-timer, LeBlanc only gets benefits if he pays into a specific scheme. “That kind of scares me,” he says.

LeBlanc sometimes thinks about his daughter, who he lost to cancer, while cleaning the hospital. “I have two boys and I don’t want them to get sick. That’s why I do what I do,” he says. “The nurses and doctors here are phenomenal. They’re exhausted but keep working because they want to do the best for their patients. So do I.”

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