You touch it, they clean it.
Possibly the most under-appreciated workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are the men and women who scrub, wipe, spray, mist and disinfect the buildings used by students, travelers, businesses and diners.
Springfield's custodians and cleaning service employees are just as much on the pandemic front lines as health care workers and emergency responders, but their work isn't as well-known because it often occurs after hours and when buildings are empty. Armed with gloves, masks, potent disinfectants and a literally healthy dose of caution, they are sent to areas where doing a good job might save someone's life.
Are they concerned for their own safety? Certainly. But their experience and training help them to mitigate the risk, and they are proud of the vital job that they do.
Dushun Hogan owns Cleaning General Janitorial Services Inc. of Springfield. He's been in business for five years and has four employees, one of whom tested positive for COVID, likely from a non-work-related source. The employee has since recovered and has resumed working.
Hogan said his greatest concern right now is the effect that the pandemic will have on the businesses that he cleans.
"One thing that concerns me is that, based upon the increased rate in COVID cases, the state will eventually shut down again," Hogan said. "If that happens, the lack of income will hurt me and my employees, and I will still have to worry about overhead. It's the exact same thing that other companies were worried about when the first shutdown happened."
Hogan said it's been a struggle to keep enough personal protective gear, such as gloves and face masks, on hand for his employees, but cleaning supplies are readily available from his suppliers.
"We switched all of our chemicals to a more potent mix that helps fight against COVID and any other type of airborne viruses," Hogan said. "We have started to incorporate electrostatic disinfection machines, and periodically use them to disinfect each office and building."
"We remind people to pay attention to what they are doing."
Kirk Kellus owns and operates one of the larger cleaning firms in the area. None of the 86 employees of Clean Impact Commercial Cleaning have tested positive for COVID, and all must perform online wellness checks before they report to the job site.
"They are always worried about COVID, so we educate our staff a lot on how to keep themselves safe," Kellus said. "Our team is taking all of the precautions they can. We remind people to pay attention to what they are doing."
Kellus, a self-described "recovering germophobe," does some of the cleaning work himself dressed in his signature button-down shirt and bow tie. He half-jokingly admits that a little bit of obsessive-compulsive behavior can go a long way toward employee safety.
"Keeping your hands away from your face is the biggest thing. We encourage team members to take off their outer layer of clothing before going in their house," Kellus said. "Even taking your shoes off, because you can transfer things with your shoes. So we educate our team on what to do after the job, not just during the job."
Kellus said his company's cleaning routine for customers hasn't changed since the pandemic began except they "do it more often." That includes the continued use of backpack vacuums and electrostatic disinfecting machines, devices that send out a disinfecting mist and resemble the units worn by the protagonists on the movie Ghostbusters. Kellus' employees also dust surfaces before spraying them with disinfectant to "remove food for viruses" and make the chemicals they use even more effective.
Some of Clean Impact's customers have had to shut down or curtail operations during the pandemic, but that has been offset by enhanced services the cleaning company has been performing for the customers who have stayed open.
In the meantime, Kellus continues to preach to his employee choir about the need to stay safe on the job.
"If our team goes down, we don't have the ability to protect people, and I'm super-serious about it because it affects my family too," Kellus said. "If a team member is off due to illness we want to take care of them, because this paycheck is important to them. We always help out because we encourage people to do the right thing."
"When COVID hit, this stuff was gold."
As soon as the passengers from a flight clear out, the custodial staff at the Springfield Airport Authority swoop in.
"We start at one end of the terminal, by the holding area when the flight comes in, then we start cleaning all of the chairs, wiping all of the arms on the chairs, the jet bridges, the restrooms," said the Airport Authority's custodial supervisor, Hector Martin. "We clean the restroom stall doors, the counter tops, the 'hot spots' that passengers lean on."
"You name it, we clean it," Martin said. "We clean this facility almost from top to bottom usually three or four times a day."
Martin and the six custodial employees are split into two shifts. They always wear masks and rubber gloves, and the gloves are changed frequently as they work. Fortunately the Airport Authority has ample supplies of personal protective gear because Martin stocked up on cleaning supplies before the pandemic hit.
"When COVID hit, this stuff was gold. It was hard to get and it was months before you could get it," Martin said. "I have a good relationship with my suppliers that take care of us out here. They try to help us out because they know we have a high demand because we are a big facility and have a lot of passengers going in and out of here."
Martin makes sure the airlines, rental car kiosks and Transportation Safety Administration sections each have hand sanitizer for their countertops and disinfecting wipes to clean their counters and keyboards.
Martin said that so far none of the Airport Authority custodians have tested positive for COVID.
The Airport Authority honed its disinfecting craft several years ago during the H1N1 flu outbreak, and that experience helped the custodians to be ready to battle COVID.
"I'm proud of my crew," Martin said. "We come through here with a fine-tooth comb. We take care of this facility and try to keep it safe for everybody."
"We get a lot of compliments out here," Martin said. "Our board members have gotten compliments from people they know. They feel safe in here because it's very clean. We keep it spotless."
"We are cleaning way more frequently."
All 103 full-time and 22 part-time custodial employees at Springfield School District 186 have had to deal directly with the pandemic. Although the district's students are learning virtually, teachers are still allowed to conduct lessons from their classrooms. In addition, the district's SCOPE, a before- and after-school program for kindergarteners through fifth graders, remains active for hybrid and remote students, so some children use the district's elementary buildings every school day.
"If we know a COVID-positive case came through, we clean and spray a whole room or area where the person had been in the building," said Kevin Roberts, assistant director of operations and maintenance. "Most of the time if it's just a classroom they will go into the classroom, spray everything down, wipe it, then we'll take an ion-misting device in there and fog and mist the whole room.
"If the person has walked through most of the building, then we will get a group of workers and wipe everything down in the building and use several of those misters and spray the whole building down," Roberts said. "We are cleaning way more frequently, I can tell you that."
Several District 186 custodial staff, including Roberts, have tested COVID-positive but Roberts said each of those cases originated from outside of the work environment.
Just like the airport staff, District 186 crews learned from the H1N1 outbreak and have modified the way they approach certain aspects of cleaning. Roberts said one simple but effective strategy they learned was to allow disinfectant spray or mist to air-dry on a surface rather than wiping it off, which allows the chemical to be effective for a much longer period of time.
Roberts said that District 186 is well-stocked with $280,000 worth of pandemic protective and cleaning supplies. After supplying every building, he said the district's warehouse still has more than 30,000 disposable masks, 10,000 pairs of gloves and 4,000 individual hand sanitizer pumps for classrooms.
"It just seems like normal practice anymore, we don't think of it as anything out of routine," Roberts said. "Hopefully this is not the new normal, but more than likely it's looking that way."
Roberts said he always needs new people to work on the custodial crew, and those interested may apply online or at the District 186 Administrative Offices at 1900 West Monroe.
"They deserve all of the praise in the world"
Joseph Reichert was a school custodian in the Chicago area for 15 years and is now the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represents approximately 24,000 members throughout Illinois.
"All of our frontline workers are at high risk," Reichert said. "They are put into environments where people are coming through, and what's true right now is not true five minutes from now. It's ever-changing."
Reichert said several Chicago-area union members have died from COVID and many more statewide have contracted the virus, often from on-the-job exposure. He said the availability of proper protective equipment and cleaning supplies for custodial workers varies widely, depending on the individual institution or business. Reichert held up the Illinois Secretary of State's Driver Services Facilities as examples of places that handle the employee COVID threat well, but there are other places where workers wage a daily fight just to have basic protective gear provided.
"They are frontline workers and they deserve all of the praise in the world, fighting this with their families, at the workplace and in their private lives," Reichert said. "They've gone above and beyond, they put themselves in harm's way to provide public services to the people of Illinois. They should be congratulated for the work they are doing."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance for janitorial and cleaning workers and the entities that employ them during the pandemic. According to the OSHA guidance, janitorial workers generally do not need special precautions beyond those already used to protect them from the hazards they encounter during their routine job tasks. However, enhanced safe work practices and additional protective equipment may be appropriate for these workers if their employers' required assessments show higher risks or potential hazards, according to OSHA.
The Illinois Department of Labor earlier this year launched Back to Business Illinois, a free service to connect small businesses of 250 employees or fewer with consultants who will help them evaluate and address workplace COVID safety and health issues. The service may be accessed at www.illinois.gov/worksafe.
"Janitorial and cleaning service firms may find this website helpful, and on it they can request a virtual visit from our consultants," said Department of Labor spokesman Mike Matulis. "There is also a self-certification program available on the website that provides a tutorial on COVID health and safety guidelines."
Matulis said that since every industry presents unique work environment challenges, each consultant will be paired with applicants based on their expertise and specific needs to customize the best plan for their business. The department also offers a free, voluntary certification to show workers and customers that the small business has participated in the non-punitive program.
All of that assistance is beneficial, but it doesn't diminish the fact that custodians and commercial cleaners come into daily contact with surfaces that might harbor a virus that would sicken or kill them.
Late one recent evening, while cleaning D&J Cafe in Springfield, Cleaning General Janitorial Services owner and operator Dushun Hogan counted himself as one of the lucky ones.
"We are doing OK now," Hogan said. "We just want to reassure our clients that we are doing our part to help fight against COVID."
David Blanchette is a freelance writer and photographer from Jacksonville. He is a regular contributor to Illinois Times.