We all know the importance of doctors, nurses, teachers, and engineers in our society. We all rightfully respect them for healing us, teaching us and making life more convenient for us, respectfully. But we rarely ever celebrate our sanitation workers. School custodians and those that work in sewage and waste are constantly exposed to toxic material. Yet they maintain hygiene in our society, mitigating the spread of viral infections such as COVID-19 and even deadly diseases that were once rampant, such as cholera. Jordan W. Tappero and Robert V. Tauxe, authors affiliated with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, talked about how industrialized countries have not dealt with an epidemic of cholera since the late 1800s because of their water and sanitation systems. That is all thanks to those that spend each day purifying our water, regulating where human waste goes to make sure we are not exposed to waste that causes and spreads many life-threatening diseases.
Custodians disinfect bathrooms, dispose of garbage, sanitize tables and clean up after students when they litter or are feeling unwell. While these are seen as menial tasks, they are the reason schools and facilities are able to operate smoothly and why fewer deadly transmittable diseases circulate in our society. However, in the United States they are only paid an average hourly rate of $13.98. For the grueling work they put in, the least they deserve is acknowledgement from the people around them – not to mention a pay raise. Willamette Week, a local news outlet based in Portland, Oregon, highlighted a custodian named Abel Hernandez and how during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was afraid of contracting COVID-19 from his job and transmitting it to his family. He also mentioned how work protections such as personal protective equipment were not provided, and the little pay he was receiving made Hernandez feel disrespected.
The work environments that our custodians and sanitation workers are in, inadequate pay and absence of necessary PPE all show a clear lack of respect for their safety and acknowledgement of their value. When bosses and CEOs do not respect their sanitation workers as human beings, people will never truly appreciate how much they actually do for us and how difficult and stressful their jobs really are.
For doctors and engineers, their work is appreciated by us and they receive – for the most part – sufficient pay, respect from their employers and safety checks and precautions, while our sanitation workers and custodians do not.
Even as a college student, I see how bathrooms are left by students. They purposely clog the toilets, leave their personal belongings and do not clean up their hair dye spills in the sinks. There are food wrappers on the floor of the residential halls and so much spilt food at the dining halls. This is just one example where custodians are treated as and expected to be personal servants.
No workers should be disrespected. However, sanitation workers get the brunt of it due the nature of their job. For that reason, everyone should show respect for sanitation workers by cleaning up after themselves no matter how small the mess may be. Employers should provide them with better pay, which can be determined by gathering sanitation workers and custodians, surveying them and coming up with a compromise – they should collectively bargain for better wages and safer working conditions. They must be provided with PPE because their wellbeing is just as important as everyone else’s. Lastly, whenever we see a sanitation worker or custodian, we should greet them and wish them a good day just like everyone else. This way our community will be healthier, not only physically but emotionally too.