“It’s Not Even About Hazard Pay. It’s About Basic Human Decency.”

Jane Walker

The coronavirus pandemic has been raging for almost a year now, but essential workers are still being wildly mistreated across the United States. We talked to a janitor at a major pharmaceutical manufacturer about the abhorrent conditions she and her coworkers are still facing on the job, where management “doesn't treat us like people.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, companies are pushing essential workers into overdrive with massive numbers of cleanings. (Nino Maghradze / Unsplash)

Interview by
Connor Harney

Essential workers continue to face an uncertain future with a new strain of COVID on the horizon and a failure to effectively distribute a vaccine to those who need it most. Last month Connor Harney sat down with Jane Walker, a janitor at a major pharmaceutical manufacturer. She explained the difficulties brought on by the pandemic and how she and her coworkers have dealt with it.

Toward the end of the interview, she describes how her team has tried to improve their work conditions and how management has reacted. While their concerns were ultimately dismissed, they speak to a scenario that has probably played out for millions of workers during this pandemic.

Connor Harney

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Jane Walker

I work at a pharmaceutical manufacturing company. I clean the labs that medicine is mass produced in. We already suited up before the pandemic and put on a full hazmat suit, we call it a Bunny suit. At work we put on the full gear and we go in clean ceilings, walls, floors, counters—we clean it all. That’s our daily routine to keep the area clean for medicine production. But now we put on masks too.

And since COVID-19 we’ve had a massive number of cleanings. Somebody [previously in a space] was sick, and sometimes you don’t even know if the person had COVID. It’s just like: somebody coughed, go clean it. So, we’re doing so much extra work, and there’s no procedure for it. We’re used to following very strict procedures.

When we’re cleaning outside of our area, we’re not wearing hazmat suits. Sometimes we just have to go into an area in our regular clothes and they ask us to clean it. And it’s like, well, we don’t really want to be exposed to this without hazmat suits on. But a lot of times we don’t even know. That’s the worst part, the thing that gets me the most: we don’t even know the reason for cleaning that area until we find out later that somebody has been gone for two weeks. It’s been really rough.

Connor Harney

Could you speak a little bit more about the way your company has handled the pandemic? And how that’s made you and your coworkers feel at work?

Jane Walker

Early on, they completely shut down the building and actually hired a team besides us that went in and cleaned it. Then they told us that they were going to give us hazard pay to start cleaning these areas and take care of things. Then slowly they kept asking us to do things that were out of our scope and not telling us about what it was. They weren’t giving us any hazard pay, and then we slowly found out we were cleaning infected areas.

Then we had a huge meeting about it. Basically our manager told us that it [hazard pay] wasn’t going to happen, that we were never going to get anything like that. It was just ridiculous. Especially because we’re just considered the bottom.

I work at a huge manufacturing company and we’re considered janitors. I mean, I am a janitor, yeah. But they just say, “Do this, do that.” And they don’t treat us like people all the time. It just blows my mind that they want us to go and do these things that they aren’t willing to do themselves and not even help us with it.

And it’s not even just [the company whose equipment I’m cleaning]. I don’t think [they are] fully aware of the situation for us, because we’re contractors. I’m under contract as [a subcontractor]. God forbid they’re managed by another thing above them—and it’s them that controls our funds. I don’t think [the manufacturing company] is even involved enough to know if we’re getting hazard pay or not. I don’t think they have any idea, but they just keep sending in all these requests and we have to go do them.

We had a huge meeting about hazard pay, about them properly informing us when we have to go do a cleaning. And we are still going to do cleanings without being fully or properly informed.

Connor Harney

What do you think would happen if you said, “I don’t want to clean that?”

Jane Walker

Somebody else would have to go do it. I don’t want to put that person at risk. Why would I want to do that?

But it’s just rough, and it’s that part of me that just wants to get everybody to band together to be like, “Hey guys, don’t clean any of the areas unless people are actually comfortable with it.” We don’t have a procedure for cleaning it. That’s the part that kills me. They don’t tell us, “When you clean the area, make sure you’re wearing gloves.” Nothing.

I feel like it’s not even a matter of hazard pay at this point. It’s just a matter of human decency.

Connor Harney

You mentioned banding together. What have the discussions been like at work? How have you guys been talking about things?

Jane Walker

The lowest of the low. I’ve never seen team morale like this. People call out [sick] all the time and their excuses are for the team, not management. But the whole team just doesn’t wanna be there. It’s funny man, we all say, “You don’t have to be here.” We support each other while our managers don’t really support us.

The team is taking care of each other, is what it feels like. And that’s nice to see, that we’ve all come together and accepted that we’re in the same boat. And if one person is having a bad day, we just let them go. Honestly, I’ve said, “I can’t do this.”

We’re all banding together, but people are also calling out all the time, so we’re all covering each other’s work and working our asses off. And everybody’s stressed and underpaid. People are all just against managers for not being clear with us. None of them ever get held accountable.

Connor Harney

You mentioned a lot of issues with people calling out sick. How big is your team? And how have you handled things like turnover?

Jane Walker

I don’t imagine it’s very easy to find [workers for] this job and to advertise for this job, so getting new employees is not easy. We’ve gotten one new employee since the pandemic began. The team has about fifteen people, maybe a little less. We’ve lost four people, which is pretty significant.

We’re picking up everybody’s extra work, and then the managers look at us and say, “You guys don’t do enough work.” We have free time, but the thing is, we’re doing a lot of work. A lot of physical work all at once and then free time for our break, but we need it. We’re not getting any appreciation.

My manager came up with an appreciation tactic, which is this little coin that he hands out to people that says “great job” on it. With that coin you get an hour off work early when you turn it in. So we’ve asked to leave during our lunch, we want to take an hour lunch at the end of the day. That way we’re not all in the break room together. Instead, he gives us little coins so we can individually choose to leave.

We had a full-on sit-down meeting [with management] finally for the first time [since] we’ve been requesting it. Our manager went around the table and asked everybody to talk about what’s going on. That was really cool. He took every single statement that everybody said and put it on the board. Then he went over it and he came up with an excuse for why every single thing is the way that it is.

It didn’t change anything. He just gave us explanations about why things are the way that they are. It was just miserable, and everybody left that meeting feeling so defeated.

Everybody was just like, “I can’t believe we wasted a whole hour in there for no reason, and we asked our manager if we could petition for hazard pay. “Can we do anything?” And he was like, “Who’s going to write the document?” And we said, “We are.”

A lot of workers aren’t in well-off positions. I wouldn’t say a janitor is a bad position by any means, but it’s not like super high up in the company, and so we’re the little guys, getting the treatment that we don’t deserve in the slightest. We’re just getting stuck doing all of the bullshit that no one wants to do.