Hospital Food Workers and Janitors Are Stuck In a “Death Trap”

Overlooked workers are risking their lives to keep the healthcare system running. Now, they’re fighting back.

Kari LydersenApril 7, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted issues like inadequate staffing, low wages and insufficient equipment. (Photo by Marco Mantovani/Getty Images)

The hos­pi­tal where Kim Smith works is sup­posed to be a safe haven,” says the patient care tech­ni­cian at North­west­ern Memo­r­i­al in Chica­go. But now she feels it has become a death trap.”

“I’m jeopardizing myself coming here every day. I love my work but just give me the tools I need to do my job.”

Like the nurs­es and doc­tors nation­wide who are risk­ing their lives to fight the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, Smith says she’s glad to help pro­vide health­care in such trau­mat­ic times. But she’s among the army of front­line health­care ser­vice providers who, while cru­cial to keep­ing the sys­tem going, are earn­ing much low­er wages than doc­tors and nurs­es and often lack ade­quate health­care and paid sick leave. And like doc­tors and nurs­es, these ser­vice work­ers often also lack access to per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) like masks, even though they’re put in con­tact with infect­ed patients.

Now, Chica­go-area health­care ser­vice work­ers — tech­ni­cians, cer­ti­fied nurs­ing assis­tants (CNAs), trans­porters, food ser­vice work­ers and house­keep­ers — are demand­ing bet­ter treat­ment and pro­tec­tion from their insti­tu­tions, as well as addi­tion­al haz­ard pay” for their work dur­ing the crisis.

On April 2, SEIU Local 73 — which rep­re­sents work­ers at Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois and Cook Coun­ty pub­lic health­care facil­i­ties in the Chica­go area—announced that it had secured addi­tion­al com­pen­sa­tion for its work­ers in the uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem. Union mem­bers will get an addi­tion­al $1 to $5 per hour dur­ing the pan­dem­ic depend­ing on their job descrip­tion and where exact­ly they work with­in the sys­tem. The coun­ty sys­tem serves the area’s low-income and unin­sured peo­ple includ­ing the hos­pi­tal at the Cook Coun­ty Jail, which has turned into a COVID-19 clus­ter.

The extra pay is not a real­ly sig­nif­i­cant amount but it acknowl­edges that we rec­og­nize you, we know you are great, that you real­ly care about your job and your com­mu­ni­ty,” says Dian Palmer, a reg­is­tered nurse and pres­i­dent of SEIU Local 73, which has been in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois sys­tem for about nine months.

The union SEIU Health­care Illinois/​Indiana rep­re­sents work­ers through con­tracts at hos­pi­tals includ­ing North­west­ern Memo­r­i­al and also has at-large mem­bers in nurs­ing homes and hos­pi­tals in the Chica­go area and across four states. They’re demand­ing haz­ard pay of 1.5 times the usu­al rate, and added pro­tec­tions for their members.

Smith, a chief stew­ard for SEIU Health­care Illinois/​Indiana, says fel­low union mem­bers at North­west­ern are reach­ing out to me on an hourly basis” about being forced to work with­out prop­er safe­ty equip­ment and pro­to­cols while receiv­ing con­tra­dic­to­ry mes­sages from man­age­ment. Employ­ees have been told to con­tin­ue work­ing even after they report COVID-like symp­toms if they are low-risk” for the dis­ease, Smith says. With many of these work­ers liv­ing on the eco­nom­ic mar­gins, and offered few paid sick days, they’re reluc­tant to take time off.

About 29,000 health­care ser­vice work­ers in Illi­nois make below $15 an hour, and 22,000 of them make below $13 an hour, accord­ing to a study by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois. Palmer notes that ser­vice job vacan­cies have been hard to fill at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Chica­go hos­pi­tal since they’re exempt from the city’s $15 an hour min­i­mum wage ordinance.

Anne Igoe, SEIU Health­care Illinois/​Indiana Vice-Pres­i­dent of the Health Sys­tems Divi­sion, notes that with such low wages, these employ­ees reg­u­lar­ly work more than one job — whether pick­ing up a sec­ond shift at a nurs­ing home or as an Uber dri­ver — increas­ing their own, and by exten­sion patients’, risk of con­tact­ing coro­n­avirus. She says employ­ees are also used to work­ing while sick, since they typ­i­cal­ly are guar­an­teed few paid sick days and until recent changes because of the pan­dem­ic, were penal­ized for tak­ing extra ones.

Igoe says the major­i­ty of their Chica­go-area mem­bers are African Amer­i­can and are women, many of them liv­ing in mar­gin­al­ized neigh­bor­hoods and with under­ly­ing health con­di­tions that put them at greater risk of extreme ill­ness or death from COVID-19. In Chica­go, more than two-thirds of the COVID-19 fatal­i­ties and more than half of con­firmed cas­es have been among African Amer­i­cans, even though they make up less than a third of the city’s population.

In cities nation­wide, as in Chica­go, low­er-paid health­care ser­vice jobs are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly filled by women and peo­ple of color.

This pan­dem­ic has made it clear who has access to test­ing, who has access to qual­i­ty health­care,” Igoe says. Our low-wage work­ers in the finest hos­pi­tals are not giv­en pro­tec­tions and not giv­en the same access to fol­low-up care that some of their patients have.” 

Kati­na McDavis, 43, has been work­ing as a house­keep­er at North­west­ern Memo­r­i­al for over 20 years. She has dia­betes, putting her at high­er risk for com­pli­ca­tions from COVID-19. McDavis also lives with her daugh­ter and two infant grand­chil­dren, and is ter­ri­fied of con­tract­ing the virus and pass­ing it on to them.

Since the pan­dem­ic began, McDavis has been work­ing over­time — often over 60 or 70 hours a week total, she says. She needs the extra pay and wants to help out, but that also leaves her phys­i­cal­ly exhaust­ed and poten­tial­ly more vul­ner­a­ble to illness.

She and oth­er house­keep­ers are giv­en sur­gi­cal masks — not the more pro­tec­tive N‑95 masks — and told to keep them in a paper bag and reuse them, she says. In an infor­mal sur­vey of about 250 SEIU Health­care mem­bers dur­ing an online meet­ing, 58% report­ed they lack suf­fi­cient PPE and 38% said they were told by high­er-ups that they don’t need PPE.

I’m jeop­ar­diz­ing myself com­ing here every day,” McDavis says. I love my work but just give me the tools I need to do my job.” 

Can­dice Mar­tinez, anoth­er house­keep­er at North­west­ern Memo­r­i­al, test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19 after com­ing down with symp­toms about two weeks ago. She feels con­fi­dent she con­tract­ed it on the job, hav­ing cleaned rooms where she says she was not prop­er­ly noti­fied that patients had the virus.

It’s hard because I’m in com­plete iso­la­tion and I don’t get to see my son,” Mar­tinez says. It’s scary know­ing there’s noth­ing they can give me to say this will help you get past this. It’s hav­ing to bat­tle this out on my own.”

While Mar­tinez believes she will receive work­ers com­pen­sa­tion for the time she is out of work, Igoe says that human resources offi­cials at sev­er­al hos­pi­tals have told the union that work­ers will not be grant­ed work­ers comp for COVID-19, since they could have caught it through com­mu­ni­ty transmission.

Igoe says employ­ees often find out co-work­ers test­ed pos­i­tive through the grapevine, rather than being told by their employ­er that some­one they worked close­ly with yes­ter­day test­ed positive.”

A state­ment from North­west­ern Memo­r­i­al did not address spe­cif­ic ques­tions but said in part that: The health and safe­ty of our employ­ees, physi­cians, and patients is our high­est pri­or­i­ty. Since the out­break of COVID-19, we have gone to extra­or­di­nary lengths to main­tain an envi­ron­ment that pro­tects everyone.”

Loret­to Hos­pi­tal on the city’s West Side — where SEIU Health­care rep­re­sents employ­ees — has grant­ed time-and-a-half haz­ard pay to employ­ees in the emer­gency depart­ment and COVID-19 unit. 

Loret­to spokesper­son Mark Walk­er says that work­ers do have access to suf­fi­cient PPE sup­plies, the hos­pi­tal fol­lows all CDC safe­ty guide­lines, and staff who test pos­i­tive for COVID-19 will be paid dur­ing their time off. But the hos­pi­tal is indeed hard-pressed as it serves a large­ly poor, African Amer­i­can clien­tele, Walk­er says. At an April 7 press con­fer­ence, hos­pi­tal CEO George Miller, Jr. and State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, who rep­re­sents the dis­trict, appealed to the city, coun­ty, state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment for more resources. 

We are a small com­mu­ni­ty hos­pi­tal, 90% of our patients are Medicare and Med­ic­aid mean­ing we’re pro­vid­ing ser­vices and being reim­bursed at a much low­er rate,” Walk­er said. You take a pan­dem­ic like this and add it onto an already stretched-thin hos­pi­tal, and you can reach a break­ing point. We’re not there yet, but it cre­ates addi­tion­al stress on our resources and our funds. We’re try­ing to do every­thing we can to pro­tect this com­mu­ni­ty. With­out addi­tion­al resources, we’re going to struggle.”

Welling­ton Thomas is an E.R. tech at Loret­to, said he goes to work each day fear­ing he may con­tract the disease. 

COVID turned our world upside down,” Thomas says. We’re deal­ing with an influx of patients, the equip­ment we already strug­gled with (hav­ing enough of) is now scarce, employ­ees are afraid to come to work…It’s not just con­tained areas, it’s spread­ing like a wild­fire through the hos­pi­tal — radi­ol­o­gy, imag­ing, phle­boto­my, blood tests.” 

(The Cook Coun­ty health sys­tem had not respond­ed to requests for com­ment by the time this sto­ry went to press.)

At oth­er hos­pi­tals as at Loret­to, work­ers say the pan­dem­ic has high­light­ed issues like inad­e­quate staffing, low wages and insuf­fi­cient equip­ment that have long pushed health­care ser­vice work­ers to the brink.

Sup­port staff like us have been the under­dogs for a long time,” says Megan Carr, a res­pi­ra­to­ry spe­cial­ist who runs ven­ti­la­tors for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois sys­tem. So get­ting haz­ard pay makes us feel like we are final­ly being rec­og­nized and respect­ed for the work that we are doing, sav­ing lives one breath at a time.”

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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