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Contracted employees need to be able to speak for themselves

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Maryland, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Residential Life told students that the cleaning staff would be disinfecting the common spaces using an “elevated cleaning protocol.” 

The first thing I wondered was how the campus cleaning staff would be impacted by being on the front lines of the battle against this virus. Unfortunately, working remotely, I realized I wouldn’t be able to simply approach a cleaning staff member,  so I reached out to Facilities Management to see if they could put me in contact with a janitor. I was told that UMBC’s cleaning staff members are contracted by ABM Industries Inc, a Fortune 500 company.

Facilities Management Associate Vice President, Lenn Caron, informed me ABM was “not interested” in allowing me to conduct interviews, so I decided to reach out to the senior ABM manager, Jennifer Miller, myself. Almost immediately, she told me that the company had decided they didn’t “want to do an interview like that at this time.” 

I asked her why. She informed me that because of a “policy,” cleaning staff members are not permitted to talk to the press without the company’s permission.

I immediately asked to view the policy, but she quickly stated that it was an internal policy. We abruptly ended the call. I then reached out to ABM’s legal team, leaving a message. I haven’t heard back since.

After reading articles like this one in The New York Times, that describes cleaning workers being manipulated by corporations, I worried especially about those who may not be able to speak for themselves. Taking away the sovereignty of the self for these service workers seems exploitative. Janitors and cleaning staff, who often get paid very little, are also risking the most: their lives. 

And yet, I couldn’t see how UMBC would be working with a contractor that was censoring its employees. In that very article, The New York Times had interviewed a janitor named Ismahan Ali, who shared a break room with janitors who cleaned a building where an Amazon employee who had coronavirus worked. In the article, Ali shared the sentiment that I’m sure many civil servants do: “‘Everyone is scared.’”

I reached out to the two reporters who covered this story, curious as to how they got the interview with Ali. Nellie Bowles, the Times reporter covering technology and internet culture, responded almost immediately. Nellie had worked with a union to get janitors speaking on the record. She connected me with a source, to find out whether UMBC janitors are unionized. As it turns out, they aren’t. 

UMBC also contracts employees from Siemens. I reached out on behalf of The Retriever and the Director of Media Relations, Annie Satow, informed me that contracted employees are not permitted to speak to the press. She told me that “it is [Siemen’s] policy to comment through official company channels, i.e., a designated Siemens spokesperson.”

These “essential personnel” are those working on our facilities and facilities all across the country doing manual labor. The question of who is considered “essential personnel” has come to the forefront of many people’s minds with the rapidly spreading pandemic. In a newswire ABM released on March 27, they stated that their “operations have been deemed an ‘Essential Service’ by the applicable governing authorities given the unprecedented focus on safety, infection control and cleaning protocols due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Essential services sound important. But what does that even really mean? There is no guarantee of more pay, though small businesses and start-ups, like WeWork, have been offering bonuses. For most civil servants, it simply means they are forced to come into work and put their lives at risk. 

Many of the spokespeople for companies like ABM and Siemens are able to work from home while cleaning staff do not have that same opportunity. It is impossible for them to speak to the experiences of those putting their lives on the line to clean potentially deadly environments. 

And even those who are able to project their voice often can only do so with their first names. The story of ‘Vanessa’ was published in TIME, telling the narrative of a hospital cleaner with underlying health conditions, working without protective equipment, who makes about $11 an hour. In the article, she said, “she might have stopped showing up at work if she didn’t need the money.”

Our healthcare workers are incredibly heroic, but as Vanessa said, “‘Us housekeepers, we have families, we have health issues, we have people and animals we go home to that we could be giving this to … The doctors and nurses have that too, but they get recognized. No one ever mentions the people who clean it up after they’re gone.’”

On our campus, we are contracting these dedicated employees, who silently clean our messes, our leftover trash and our grime on common tables, often without thanks. Without hearing from our cleaning staff on campus, I have no way of telling how these employees are being treated or what is being done to support and protect these community members. It’s a system set up for exploitation.