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  • Writer's pictureLa Voz Latina

Unsung Heroes: Recognizing the Vital Role of Custodian Workers During the Pandemic

By: Michelle Calderon 🇸🇻

Purell Soap at Susquehanna Hall at UMD on April 10, 2024. (Alexa Figueroa)

Four years have passed since the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the pauses in our busy lives, hospitals and other health care settings witnessed a flood of patients suffering the consequences of a violent and emerging virus. 

While doctors and nurses received due credit and recognition for all their work and sacrifices during the pandemic, custodian workers were often overlooked despite their essential contributions.

Per The American Journal of Bioethics, medical professionals relied on the work of custodians to care for the increasing number of patients during the pandemic." 

“Custodians clean and sanitize the rooms of infected patients daily,” the article said in a section discussing non-medical personnel. “Without custodians who enter patients’ rooms to sanitize surfaces and clean, physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists could not do their jobs safely or at all.” 

The article states custodians’ efforts during the pandemic were indispensable. Without their work, doctors, nurses and other health care workers would not have been able to care for patients. 

Media outlets not only disregarded hospital custodians during the pandemic but also inadequately equipped. 

The Journal of Hospital Medicine states that Environmental Health Service employees (EVS) felt their sacrifices and strong work ethic were not acknowledged by the media. A worker interviewed by the article said, “[the media] would say in commercials to the frontline workers, ‘Thank you nurses, thank you doctors,’ but I think it was a whole team effort.” 

The study also found that during the pandemic workers who cleaned the facilities and equipment worked in understaffed environments, received inadequate compensation and lacked necessary equipment to protect themselves while working. 

“In the early months of the COVID-19 response in the United States, [Environmental Health Service employees] were among the last to be supplied with masks in some instances, all while performing added cleaning tasks under the increased time constraints given pressures on hospital capacity,” the article said.

The article added while working in dangerous conditions, many of these employees lacked health care needs such as paid sick leave and insurance.

 Their positions did not allow them to take sick leave or to seek medical care when needed. 

Many Spanish-speaking custodians were neglected because of the language barrier, said the article Thus, custodians were not given proper instructions on how to stay safe during the pandemic. 

“For some [EVS colleagues], I feel like they don’t understand the safety part of it,” a study participant said. “There should be translations for other languages. It’s important for them to know what’s going on so that they can take care of themselves and don’t get sick.”  

While the impact the pandemic had on the well-being of doctors and nurses was recognized, the toll that it had on the mental health of custodian workers went unnoticed. 

Before the pandemic EVS workers found joy in having direct contact with the patients.  Whether it was making small talk or helping a patient do their hair, the article said workers enjoyed engaging with patients and felt isolated when they could no longer interact with them. 

EVS workers were also excluded from retail and chain promotions designed to honor the sacrifices of essential workers. 

A June 2020 USA Today story by Lindsay Schnell, follows the devastating encounter environmental service tech Luis Padilla had at a McDonald’s. 

During the week of June 7, 2020, McDonald’s announced it would be giving free meals to front-line workers battling the coronavirus. The article said Padilla, who was working at a Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, was eager to receive recognition for his hard work but was denied the complimentary meal. 

The cashier was rude to Padilla and accused him of attempting to exploit the situation, saying, “This is not for you. This is for doctors, nurses and police. Don’t be trying to get free food.” 

Even though Padilla, who was left devastated by the encounter, worked long hours in dangerous conditions to assist medical providers in treating patients, his efforts were perceived as worthless. 

Padilla opened his eyes to how little the public was aware of his hard work to keep others safe during the pandemic. 

Custodians played a crucial role — risking their health and well-being to ensure that doctors could serve their patients. However, their contributions were excluded from the media, causing others to ignore their efforts.

“No one is thinking about custodians at all. People have no idea about what we do. We are not just picking up trash,” Padilla said.

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