CT Hospital Cleaning Staff Not Feeling So Essential

At a Connecticut hospital, health care housekeepers are failing to feel adequately recognized for the work they do.

September 12, 2022

In a recent article by the CT Mirror, Connecticut health care housekeepers complained that, while they know their own worth, they aren’t being treated accordingly for the often dangerous yet lifesaving work they do.

For Katherine Stearns—lead housekeeper at Windham Hospital in Willimantic, Connecticut—the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were both frantic and scary—and, as she said, her housekeeping staff was “in the middle of it all.”

In 2021, 95,000 custodial workers were employed by hospitals in the United States. In fact, according to a report by The Brookings Institution, more people worked in hospitals as housekeepers and janitors during 2020—the height of the pandemic—than did physicians and surgeons. 

Yet, while often being called “health care heroes,” only recently have benefits started to trickle in for the hospital housekeepers.

Neil Prose—a dermatologist and professor of medicine at Duke University who specializes in provider-patient communication—said, “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-19].” 

That work, described as “non-stop” by Stearns, included cleaning and sanitizing everything even remotely exposed to COVID-19 patients. Stearns went from working her regular schedule of 32 hours a week to working between 50 and 55 hours weekly.

Initially, this work was performed while personal protection equipment (PPE) was in short supply. One housekeeper, José Rodriguez, said that it wasn’t unusual for him to use a single mask for as long as a week. When N95 masks became available, he said, doctors and nurses were the prioritized recipients.

“They made a double standard, a second class for the housekeeper,” said Rodriguez.

Then, in February 2022, during a spike in COVID-19 cases, Hartford HealthCare offered certain employees at Windham Hospital, including patient care technicians, paramedics, and sterile processing technicians, overtime bonuses for putting in extra hours. However, housekeepers didn’t qualify for those bonuses. Stearns had been told that was because housekeepers didn’t require certification.

Eventually, Hartford HealthCare extended the incentive to housekeepers in April, nearly two months later. By then, Stearns said, she was already feeling unappreciated. “I just feel like we’re always at the bottom of the barrel,” she said.

Wyndham Hospital’s president, Donna Handley, responded that hospital had awarded four rounds of bonuses to all employees throughout the pandemic, although additional incentives were granted to specific employee groups in cases of staffing shortages within particular units.

“These would be specific to the shortages and not typically offered to everyone,” Handley stated in an email to CT Mirror, further adding, “Most incentives offered at Windham were specific to nurses.”

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