Hospital staff are some of the most exposed essential workers during the pandemic, but cleaning staff who work in coronavirus units at UNM Hospitals say they don’t have the same access to personal protective equipment (PPE) or training on how to stay safe at work as other staff. While UNMH has COVID safety practices in place, staff say they don't reach employees who don't speak English or have regular internet access. Cleaning crew members are asking for hazard pay, better PPE, training on new cleaning chemicals, and paid quarantine leave if they are exposed.
After coronavirus patients leave a UNM Hospital room, housekeepers like Elizabeth have the task of cleaning up. She said since the pandemic started, her job has started taking a mental toll, and she second-guesses her PPE every time she enters a room to clean.
“We enter scared, with one or two masks on, thinking ‘am I protected or not?’” said Elizabeth. She said she spends eight hours a day in potentially contaminated rooms, yet she doesn’t know if the blue surgical masks she wears are sufficient to keep her from getting sick.
“Even though you try to calm yourself down, your nerves win,” said Elizabeth, who preferred not to use her last name to protect her job, and specified that she's not speaking on behalf of UNMH. “So many things go through your head: that you could get infected, that you won’t be able to go home and see your kids.”
Elizabeth said she is worried about bringing COVID-19 back to her two kids and husband, who all have asthma. She said that she and her coworkers -- many of them Spanish-speaking women -- haven’t gotten any training on how to deal with the new coronavirus, so even though they know that this virus is different than others, they’re cleaning the COVID rooms just like any other hospital room.
Alicia Hernandez, a member of the cleaning crew and a delegate of District 1199NM of the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees, says cleaning staff are some of the most exposed, yet they don’t receive the N95 masks that have been shown to stop the airborne virus. Along with a lack of training, she says, that puts everyone in the hospital at risk.
Both women said they are concerned for patients who use the rooms, as well as their colleagues, including doctors, nurses and technical staff.
Hernandez says her supervisors have been dishonest about the situation, saying they had trained staff on how to work in COVID units when in fact "they have not taken the time to do so. They claimed at one of our meetings that we have already been trained, but that’s a total lie,” Hernandez said.
KUNM reached out repeatedly to Juan Flores, the director of the UNMH environmental services department, to discuss these allegations and others. Flores directed requests to UNMH communications staff, who declined to provide an interview with him or anyone who could respond to cleaning workers' specific concerns, instead offering general statements on hospital safety practices.
"We take all allegations of mistreatment seriously, and will look into these claims,"wrote UNMH spokesperson Mark Rudi in an email, "but we can tell you that employee and patient safety is our top priority at University of New Mexico Hospital."
The hospital and healthcare worker union has asked the UNMH administration to provide safety nets such as hazard pay and paid leave for quarantine, as well as training on the new cleaning chemicals. Hernandez says they have not responded.
Mauricio de Segovia, an organizer with the union, says sometimes housekeeping staff are met with bright pink laminated signs on the doors of rooms coronavirus patients have used.
“The signs say that staff need to go to the charge nurse and obtain a gown, gloves, N95 mask, bouffant and face shield prior to entering the room. However, as housekeepers follow those instructions, they go to obtain the adequate PPE and are told they don’t need it, and to proceed with the cleaning without the PPE described on those signs,” de Segovia said. “From our standpoint, we believe that those precautions are still in effect when that sign is up.”
The hospital has COVID-19 safety practices in place, but de Segovia says staff who speak Spanish and those who don’t have consistent access to email or internet are regularly left out of the loop. He said no other sector of workers has as many Spanish speakers as the cleaning crew does, putting them at a particular disadvantage during the pandemic, with both language and technical barriers preventing them from accessing the town halls, online forums, and classes where UNMH provides employees information about coronavirus.
Since KUNM’s previous reporting on this issue, de Segovia said the hospital announced by email that their COVID town halls will now have Spanish language interpretation. But he says many cleaning crew workers likely won’t see that email.
De Segovia said supervisors in the environmental services department have not been responsive to workers' requests for information about COVID policies, and rejected some housekeepers’ doctors notes that indicated they should not work in COVID rooms due to health conditions that put them at high risk.
“Two particular employees had attempted to turn over doctors' notes directly to their supervisors and were told 'if you can’t work these rooms, you might as well go home,'” said de Segovia.
Dr. Eve Espey is chair of the OBGYN department and co-chair of the PPE committee for the hospital. She says all employees deserve to feel safe at work, and that any employee can call the occupational health unit to have their work modified to fit their needs.
“Every employee gets personalized guidance from occupational health relative to what work functions they can and can’t do,” said Espey.
Although that occupational health unit is in place, de Segovia said Spanish-speaking cleaning staff often don’t know about it or can’t access the service without getting permission from their supervisor, which doesn’t always happen.
Hernandez cleans 30 rooms a night, working from 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. She said she sees a connection between women who engage in care work such as cleaning and childcare across the world: she said their work is critical, but they’re treated as disposable.
After Hernandez spoke with KUNM last week, she said her supervisor tried to intimidate her out of talking to the media, but that doesn't deter her.
“I have never been afraid," Hernandez said. "Never been afraid of speaking out to my director, or to the director of human resources, I know that is my right to do it. Speaking out loud on behalf of my coworkers, I believe it’s my right."
KUNM's repeated requests to interview Hernandez' supervisor were refused by UNMH communications staff.
In April, the hospital workers' union sent an email inviting UNMH CEO Kate Becker to join their workers' town hall to hear their concerns, and they picketed outside her office. They say Becker didn’t respond.
UNMH spokesperson Mark Rudi said in an email on May 15 that Becker had not been approached by any housekeeping employee about their concerns.
- Have you experienced a short check? Wage theft? You can call the federal Department of Labor: dol.gov, 1-866-487-2365, the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions: dws.state.nm.us, or Albuquerque’s Legal Department: cabq.gov/legal, (505) 768-4500).
- If you're experiencing discrimination or harassment, you can report it to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: eeoc.gov, 1-800-669-4000, the state's Human Rights Bureau: 1-800-566-9471, or Albuquerque's Office of Equity and Inclusion: (505) 768-3307.
- For occupational health and safety violations, look to OSHA: osha.gov, 1-800-321-6742. Or if you were injured on the job, the New Mexico Workers Compensation Administration: workerscomp.nm.gov, 505-827-3600.
- Or if you experience retaliation for speaking out, the National Labor Relations Board: nlrb.gov, 1-844-762-NLRB.
- The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty can also hear your claims about unsafe conditions and wage theft: nmpovertylaw.org, 505-255-2840
- Workers rights advocates at Somos un Pueblo Unido are ready to help, too: somosunpueblounido.org. They have offices in Santa Fe, Roswell and Hobbs.
- El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos also helps workers facing exploitation, wage theft, or injury: elcentronm.org, 505-246-1627