Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Sept. 4, 2022. Read all of CT Mirror’s “Best of 2022” stories here.
During the terrifying spring of 2020, as COVID-19 paralyzed the nation and hospitals buckled, Katherine Stearns was on the front lines in Windham Hospital’s emergency room.
Stearns works as the lead housekeeper at the hospital. She remembers everything about the early days of the pandemic as “frantic,” from the burning sensation the Purell left on her hands to the patients who went from just fine to intubated in an instant.
“It was scary, like, really scary, to watch that,” said Stearns. “We were in the middle of it.”
Despite being touted as “health care heroes,” some housekeepers say the benefits they have rightfully earned have only come after painstaking demands for recognition, if they’ve come at all.
In Connecticut, some of these benefits are now becoming available. But critics say financial awards fall far below what is deserved.
There are 95,000 housekeepers working in hospitals across the country, which is greater than the number of doctors working in hospitals. Housekeepers are among the health care workers who spend the most time with patients and their families, often talking to and forming relationships with people as they clean.
Neil Prose, a dermatologist and professor of medicine at Duke University who specializes in provider-patient communication, directed “Keepers of the House,” a 2020 documentary about the role that housekeepers play in patient care.
“They know the patients better than we do. That’s not small. And they’re doing work without which we couldn’t survive … especially during COVID,” Prose said in an interview with the CT Mirror.
That work is physically demanding. A daily cleaning of a patient’s room includes emptying the trash, mopping the floors, cleaning the bathroom and wiping down any “high-touch” areas, like handrails and television remotes.
And once COVID hit, every cleaning process became much more involved.
Before entering a room with a patient who had symptoms, Stearns and her team had to “gown up,” which included putting on a hospital gown, gloves, an N95 mask and a face shield or goggles. When a COVID patient was discharged, anything the patient used had to be removed or sanitized, down to the curtains, which had to be taken down and washed (Stearns said the hospital has since begun using disposable curtains).
“It was nonstop,” said Stearns.
‘A second class’
Despite the crucial role they played, housekeepers reported feeling unseen and undervalued throughout the pandemic.
Until a few weeks ago, José Rodriguez worked at UConn Health as a housekeeper for 10 years.
Rodriguez recalled the supply shortages that plagued hospitals in the early months of the pandemic, when he regularly used a single mask for an entire week. Once N95s became available, doctors and nurses were prioritized in receiving them.
“They made a double standard, a second class for the housekeeper,” said Rodriguez, despite the reality that a hospital cannot operate without a cleaning staff. “When they don’t have housekeepers, it’s chaos.”
The housekeeping workforce, like most sectors of first responders, buckled under the strain of the pandemic. The influx of patients created unprecedented demand for their work, while the virus caused many workers to be out sick. Housekeepers helped hospitals navigate the shortages by taking on new responsibilities and working overtime.
Rodriguez typically cleaned common areas, like hallways and waiting rooms. But during surges, he would also clean rooms on the COVID floor. In December 2021, Stearns recalled, eight of Windham’s roughly 20 housekeepers were out sick. She and others who were healthy worked overtime to help the hospital absorb the shortage in cleaning staff.
“I was picking up every single day I was off,” said Stearns, who went from working her regular schedule of 32-hour weeks to working between 50- and 55-hour weeks, which she said felt better than sitting at home. “At least if I was at work I was contributing and helping out some.”
The following February, during another spike in cases, Hartford HealthCare offered certain employees at Windham an overtime bonus for putting in extra hours. Several departments, including patient care technicians, paramedics, and sterile processing technicians, qualified for the incentive. Housekeepers did not because, Stearns was told, their job did not require a certification.
The exclusion left her and her colleagues feeling unappreciated. Stearns said Hartford HealthCare eventually extended the incentive to housekeepers in April, nearly two months later.
“I just feel like we’re always at the bottom of the barrel,” she said.
Donna Handley, president of Windham Hospital, said the hospital has awarded four rounds of bonuses to all employees throughout the pandemic, as well as additional incentives to only specific employee groups in cases of staffing shortages within particular units.
“These would be specific to the shortages and not typically offered to everyone,” stated Handley in emailed comments, adding, “Most incentives offered at Windham were specific to nurses.”
‘Fix the broken system’
The experiences of Stearns, Rodriguez and their colleagues shed light on the ways in which housekeepers have been overlooked, despite the sacrifices they’ve made.
In a report titled “Essential but undervalued,” Brookings Metro fellow Molly Kinder lays out a policy agenda to support low-wage essential health workers, which includes housekeepers, as well as medical assistants, home health aides, cooks and more.
Two of the policies that Kinder explores are sick time and hazard pay. This year, Connecticut has implemented both.
COVID sick time
In January, Connecticut launched a $34 million Essential Workers COVID-19 Assistance Program to replace lost wages and cover medical expenses for front line workers who caught COVID throughout the pandemic, but the initial statute applied only to workers infected between March 2020 and July 2021. In May, the legislature voted to extend the time period through December 2022.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Rochelle Palanche, the vice president of SEIU Local 32BJ, the union representing Rodriguez and the other janitors employed by SMG and working at UConn.
The extension allows qualifying front line workers, including housekeepers, to apply for reimbursement up to $1,446 in lost wages resulting from a COVID infection.
But the program’s rollout has met challenges. As of August 31, the Comptroller’s office reported that it had awarded only 1.7% of the $34 million budgeted, suggesting the fund desperately needs more promotion and an easier application process.
Prior to the bill’s passage, workers had to depend on COVID sick leave policies put in place by their employers. In many cases, these policies only provided enough paid sick time for a single COVID infection without complications, despite cases of extended illnesses, hospitalizations, and multiple infections.
Under the COVID-19 leave policy for state employees, UConn Health employees could be reimbursed for a 14-calendar day period in case of infection. A second period of COVID paid leave was provided in “certain circumstances.” A spokesperson for UConn Health noted that after exhausting paid leave, an “employee could use their own accruals or choose to go unpaid.”
Although José Rodriguez worked at UConn, he was actually employed by SMG Corporate Services, a company that provides janitorial services to UConn Health. SMG gave its employees working at UConn 10 days of paid COVID sick time between March 2020 and December 31, 2021. The company also stated that, between January 1 and February 28, 2022, it provided “a benefit, negotiated with SEIU Local 32BJ, that was equal to the updated CDC quarantine guidelines at that time.”
Between late 2020 and early 2021, Rodriguez got infected with COVID, and SMG compensated him for the days he had to miss. But then, in October 2021, Rodriguez got COVID a second time. Both he and his wife, Myriam Nevarez, who also works as a housekeeper at UConn, had to quarantine — Rodriguez for seven days and Nevarez for 10.
“The income shut down in my house for almost three weeks. We were struggling. We’ve saved for everything, but we were struggling,” he recalled.
This time, when Rodriguez asked his employer about compensation, he said they told him there wasn’t anything the company could provide to him directly.
SMG confirmed that its policy did not provide additional sick time in cases of reinfection but stated that the company “worked with the employee to determine what other state or federal COVID relief program might be available to them,” including “unemployment compensation or extended benefits under state or federal law or pandemic emergency unemployment compensation.”
Rodriguez applied for pandemic unemployment assistance twice and was denied both times. The unemployment application asks whether the applicant is currently seeking a job. Since he had a full-time job, Rodriguez responded ‘no,’ which immediately disqualified him.
Handley, Windham Hospital’s president, confirmed in an emailed statement that the hospital’s workers “are compensated if they miss work due to COVID,” though she did not provide specific details of the policy.
Stearns said she hasn’t heard of any hospital employees facing issues similar to those Rodriguez and his colleagues experienced at UConn. A spokesperson from Yale New Haven Health, the health system with the most employees as of 2020, did not respond to requests regarding the details of their policy.
The state’s relief fund marks the first opportunity Rodriguez and his family have to recoup their lost wages.
Without a policy in place to cover them in cases of reinfection, several of his colleagues avoided getting tested for COVID when they felt sick so they could continue working, said Rodriguez. They feared that a positive test would force them to take time off that they could not afford.
A spokesperson for SMG Corporate Services wrote in emailed comments that the company is “unaware of any situation” where an employee felt sick but avoided taking a COVID test due to concerns they wouldn’t qualify for sick time. A spokesperson for UConn Health said that the hospital requires vaccination and daily entry screenings for all employees and contractors, adding that coming into work while experiencing COVID symptoms is a “violation of UConn Health policies.”
On August 5, the state launched a pandemic premium pay program to provide front line private-sector workers with lump-sum bonuses.
The $30 million program allows qualifying essential workers to apply for grants ranging from $200 to $1,000 per worker. The size of the grants will ultimately depend on the number of applicants the program receives.
“It’s something,” said Rodriguez. “I think we deserve a little bit more.”
By simple math, the $30 million program cannot deliver more than 30,000 grants of $1,000 each. In the first three-and-a-half weeks, 255,000 people — more than eight times the maximum capacity level — requested applications. And the program will continue to accept applications for another month, until Oct. 1.
“They’re lucky if they get $50 at the rate we’re going,” said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee. “We’re not doing the right thing, we’re not putting people first.”
Porter, along with her co-chairwoman Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury renewed their push for additional funding earlier this summer. Rep. Sean Scanlon of Guilford, the Democratic nominee for state comptroller, called for Connecticut to re-capitalize the program, as did Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
So far, Gov. Ned Lamont, a Greenwich Democrat running for reelection in November, has been noncommittal.
Lamont has said twice recently through a spokesman only that he would consider any legislative proposals to expand funding for the program when the regular 2023 General Assembly session begins in January.
Massachusetts’ hazard pay program, which covers both public and private sector workers, has a budget of $500 million. The state sent payments to 480,000 people in March and another 330,000 in May.
The $30 million budget pales in comparison to an initial bill introduced by the labor committee that called for $750 million in funding to provide full-time front line workers with a $2,000 bonus. The bill never became law, but a much more modest program managed to get legislative approval.
“It just boggled the minds of the workers that we had to be struggling and pushing,” said Palanche, the vice president of 32BJ. “We were fighting to the last moment on something so important, something so significant, something that we all agreed was what needed to happen.”
In December, Rodriguez attended a rally outside Gov. Ned Lamont’s Greenwich home to demand benefits for essential workers.
As a reminder of the sacrifices workers had made, another attendee asked, “Where’s our Thanksgiving and Christmas?” while fellow protestors chanted “Fix the broken system” and “Shame on you.”
‘We only want a piece’
While COVID sick time and hazard pay will provide support for housekeepers, the policies don’t address the underlying issue facing them: low wages.
“Short-term fixes … are urgently needed. But policymakers and employers should also make lasting changes so that these essential workers finally earn a permanent living wage,” wrote Kinder.
Last month, Connecticut raised its minimum wage from $13 per hour to $14 per hour, but the living wage most residents need exceeds $20 per hour.
Stearns has been working as a housekeeper at Windham for over 10 years and makes less than $16 an hour. Several of her colleagues in the housekeeping department have quit, with most citing low pay as a primary reason.
“What most said to me is that they don’t get paid enough to put up with this stuff,” she said.
The housekeepers at Windham, as well as other hospital employees, are currently in negotiations with Hartford HealthCare, demanding fair wages and broader health benefits. Negotiations have been going on since December.
Hartford HealthCare stated that the parties have completed 21 bargaining sessions to date and that the company looks forward to reaching an agreement.
Rodriguez has since begun a new position working directly for UConn Health. But, while he worked as a housekeeper, Rodriguez served as an ombudsman for SEIU Local 32BJ, helping to navigate conversations between his colleagues and his employer when issues arose. He said that recently people have been coming to him desperate about the impact of inflation on their ability to make ends meet.
“The money we are receiving now doesn’t cover … the needs that every family has,” said Rodriguez. “We have to adjust our lives.”
Rodriguez acknowledged that the many factors putting financial pressure on himself and his colleagues — the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, rampant inflation — are not the fault of his employer. But the situation they face resurfaces a disparity that has frustrated him since the start of the pandemic. While the entire health care sector, both employers and workers, suffered tremendously, the federal and state government rolled out robust programs to support companies while providing much more modest support to the workers themselves.
The health care industry has “a big cake,” said Rodriguez. “We only want a piece of that.”
For information about both the COVID-19 relief fund and the premium pay programs, call the Comptroller’s information phone line at 833-660-2503. Spanish language support is available.