Hospital cleaners are on the frontlines, too—so why aren’t they getting any credit?

I’m standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn, New York, diligently stirring a pot of chicken risotto I’m dangerously close to burning, when I hear the sound of New York City’s new 7:00 p.m. ritual: people in windows, on balconies, and on stoops, cheering on the healthcare professionals, hospital cleaners, and other essential employees battling the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that, to date, has killed over 40,000 Americans. Sometimes the cheers are accompanied by songs, like “New York, New York.” Other times the cheers grow louder in an attempt to best the near-constant scream of sirens that permeate throughout the day: an audible act of defiance against a piercing reminder of the loss of lives happening around us. 

My 5-year-old made signs that now hang in his bedroom window to show our appreciation to delivery people, sanitation workers, warehouse workers, doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Still, there is one group of people on the frontlines who are left out of the city’s 7:00 p.m. communal act of recognition: hospital cleaners. 

As of April 14th, a reported 27 hospital workers have died from coronavirus (COVID-19), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But the CDC’s count only included 16% of the country’s confirmed coronavirus cases. According to The Guardian’s reporting, the number of healthcare workers—including hospital cleaners—who’ve died is likely much higher, and in some states, like Utah, healthcare worker deaths make up 20% of all coronavirus fatalities

The average yearly salary for an emergency room physician working in the United States is $287,049, and the average salary of a person who cleans hospital rooms in New York City is $33,442 a year. Yet the jobs they do have equal importance during a pandemic: Both are on the frontlines and make it possible for people to seek vital care in the midst of a public health crisis that has strained an already broken healthcare system.

Both cleaners and physicians are exposing themselves and their families to a virus that’s 10 times deadlier than the flu, but one is compensated far more than the other. While this is surely accounting for the work being done by doctors, and the years of intense schooling and training they’ve endured, it’s also a reminder of how little we value the people who make it possible for others—like doctors, nurses, and technicians—to do their jobs.

Sadly, the U.S. has a long history of undervaluing and underpaying the very workers we are now desperately depending on. For example, the federal government hasn’t raised the national minimum wage since 2009. Instead of making expansions and allowances for things like hazard pay, the federal government is bailing out CEOs and billionaire moguls as they enjoy the comfort of their quarantine yachts. Shake Shack gave back their $10 million government loan because it was unnecessary; during his daily coronavirus press conference, President Donald Trump claimed that Harvard would be returning their $8.7 million coronavirus federal aid, saying, “They shouldn’t be taking it. When I saw Harvard—they have one of the largest endowments anywhere in the country, maybe the world. They’re going to pay back the money.”The richest among us are making promises they cannot keep—like Elon Musk, who pledged 1,000 ventilators to the state of California but never delivered. Meanwhile, the people who barely make enough to keep up with the rising cost of living go to work and put their own health at risk to ensure that people who are sick can be cared for, and that those who provide that care can do so safely, adequately, and as frequently as is necessary.

So if the doctors, nurses, and technicians are truly on the frontlines, then the 4.4 million janitors and other hospital sanitation workers are the foundation on which they stand.

They’re entering “red zones” during a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment. They’re exposing themselves not only to the coronavirus but to industrial-strength cleaning products and other sanitizers that can also be hazardous to their health. And, somehow, they’re still smiling under their masks as they enter a room where patients are left to fight against the virus without a family member or friend by their side. 

The majority of healthcare workers are women, and over 70% of healthcare workers who have contracted coronavirus are women. Many of the healthcare workers are also immigrants. For instance, Hunter Walker, a White House correspondent for Yahoo News, shared via Twitter a picture of his mother-in-law, a hospital cleaner from Peru, that she had posted online. In the post, she said, “This is my chance to thank New York for making my family’s dreams come true,” alongside a picture of herself in full protective gear.  false

It would be wrong to say that these hospital cleaners—and other frontline workers who are often overlooked, like public transportation workers, sanitation workers, warehouse employees, and delivery drivers—are simply exposing themselves (and, potentially, those they love) to a deadly virus because they feel a moral obligation to give back to their communities. While that is undoubtedly true to some extent, continuing to work is also a necessity for many of these employees, and a one-time $1,200 check from the government will not suffice to keep them afloat. Undocumented immigrants won’t even receive a check. (Unless they live in California, where the state is giving their own stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants.)

Hospital cleaners deserve more than recognition and more than our nightly applause. They deserve hazard pay, which could increase their salaries by as much as $25,000. They deserve affordable health care that isn’t tethered to their employment status, paid sick leave and time off, and universal child care so that they can continue to protect their families when their shifts end. 

But, for right now, taking the time every night at 7:00 p.m. to remember those who are cleaning our hospitals is, at the very least, a start.