“The way many think of custodial staff does not reflect the value that they provide to hospitals,” Takano told me recently. “They are critical to infection control; we need to see these employees as skilled workers.”
In the VA, housekeeping positions are generally reserved for those who served. Retired service members struggling with mental illness or physical impairments fill many of those slots. As of 2015, roughly 65 percent of VA housekeepers were people of color; currently 85 percent are veterans. Unlike clinical hospital staff, who are less likely to be veterans or minorities, housekeepers aren’t required to have advanced degrees, and they rarely win public accolades. But the VA’s 257-page COVID-19 battle plan relies heavily on housekeepers, and requires sanitizing everything from hospital chapels to body bags holding the remains of those who succumbed to the coronavirus. The VA, however, lacked enough cleaning staff to fully execute that plan. Ten days after its release, agency officials announced they needed to quickly hire housekeepers.
In an impressive feat, the department hired 1,126 cleaning staff over the next month. But it’s unclear how quickly these employees were onboarded and whether this boost meaningfully shrunk the vacancy number or simply replaced some of the staff lost to attrition each quarter. The VA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
President Donald Trump earned historic support from veterans in 2016, in part by promising to fix the VA. Yet one of his signature legislative achievements, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, has disproportionately targeted lower-level employees, who are typically veterans. Many of them are housekeepers.
From 2017 to 2018, nearly 900 cleaning workers were suspended or fired as a result of the bill, many of them for specious reasons or minor mistakes. The president, however, boasted of the office’s firing spree just a few weeks ago, in Memorial Day comments dedicated to America’s fallen. “They don’t take care of our vets, we fire them,” Trump said. He enthusiastically estimated 8,000 employee terminations—many of them veterans—calling the fired staffers “sadists” and “thieves.”
“They didn’t take care of our vets,” Trump said. “Now they’re gone. We got ’em out.” Those no longer in the agency include housekeepers, yes, but also clinical staff crucial to COVID-19 care. Although an analysis by the American Federation of Government Employees showed housekeeping as the top position targeted by the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, nursing came second.
The necessity of VA housekeepers—and the story of their mistreatment—is vividly illustrated on the grounds of the Pittsburgh VA’s University Drive campus, a sprawling, 14-acre system built on top of an abandoned mine shaft. When the virus reached the Steel City in March, it circulated on the third floor of the Pittsburgh VA’s mental-health ward. Four housekeepers manned the floor in good times, but staff fluctuations in recent years had brought that number to as low as two. Just before the pandemic, the Pittsburgh VA acknowledged 36 custodial vacancies, and had three housekeepers on the third floor, all of whom were veterans. The oldest was in his 70s. The virus moved throughout the floor quickly. Soon most of its patients were sick.
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