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Janitors say it's dehumanizing not to be recognized for essential work

Paula Wissel
Janitors, including Mark Guthrie, join late night vigil for loss of union member to COVID-19.

Recently, a small group of janitors gathered outside a downtown Seattle high-rise around 10 p.m. Standing socially distant from each other, they lit candles to honor a member of their union, SEIU-6, who had died from COVID-19.


More than 15 out of 7,500 members of the union are sick with the virus. The janitors say it highlights the dangers they face on the job. They say while their work is essential, it isn’t being recognized as such.

Carmen Loreto-Hays, who cleans the building where Goggle has offices in Seattle, was in attendance at the vigil. She said her job is extra stressful right now because of the pressure to make sure every inch of a space is completely clean.

“I want to make sure everything is disinfected and that I don’t miss any place, because if you skip one place and somebody can get infected I would feel very bad,” she said.

And Loreto-Hays says she has other worries as well, like making sure no one at home gets sick.

“My mom has cancer and she lives with me so I need to make sure that when I get home I change my clothes and disinfect my shoes before I enter the house,” she said.

Mark Guthrie agrees the work is extra stressful right now. He’s a janitor at Pacific Place Mall in downtown Seattle.

“With the coronavirus, the anxiety is just off the chains,” he said.

Although the mall is shut down, he said there are still construction workers and security in the building and homeless camps outside. He said he’s constantly scrubbing bathrooms and disinfecting everything, including  where “the homeless pee and defecate” near the building.

Like Loreto-Hays, Guthrie said you worry that you might miss something and someone will get sick.

He said, in many ways, janitors are invisible to the general public.

“At times we, like myself, feel dehumanized because people don’t recognize you as vital. We are very vital. We are on the front lines and in the line of fire of the coronavirus,” he said.

Guthrie said by janitors disinfecting all of the different buildings and tables and handles and elevator buttons, they are preventing the spread of the virus and protecting the rest of us.

The janitors say they want recognition in the form of policies and laws, including extra pay as essential workers and better sick leave. 

News janitorsCoronavirus CoverageCOVID-19essential workersunion workers
Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.