Clean Slate

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
José Barrios, owner of Cleansolution Services, shows the array of cleaning equipment his company uses to address increased sanitization measures.

Normally operating in the background, COVID-19 has elevated the importance and competitive landscape of janitorial work.

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Pauline Perez, owner and operator of PDX Cleaning, never used to worry about the competition.

In the janitorial industry since buying a cleaning franchise at age 18, Perez started her own company, PDX Cleaning, seven years ago. Since then, she’s built the firm into a midsize, 24-hour operation. Her team of eight employees and 18 subcontractors service 300 regular clients, along with another 70 to 100 one-time cleaning jobs a month.

1120 cleanIT4A4830Pauline Perez, owner of PDX Cleaning, runs her business out of her Sherwood home.  Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Pre-COVID-19, Perez’s biggest challenge was finding enough people up to handling the strenuous and repetitive demands of cleaning work. “Everything else was easy,” she recalls. “The clients were easy, the walk-throughs [where Perez would sell her company’s services] were easy.”

Post-COVID-19, the problems have flipped.

Stay-home orders mean fewer offices, restaurants and other businesses need cleaning. New technologies, like electrostatic disinfectant sprayers and autonomous robot-cleaning machines, are hyped as the latest, greatest and cheapest new solutions.

And layoffs have inspired a whole new cadre of people interested in getting into the suddenly hot industry.

“Everyone and their mother are opening a janitorial company,” Perez laments.

The influx, combined with ever-shrinking square footage needing cleaning service, means Perez often finds herself undercut on price, even after she lowered her fees. “That scares me. Anyone cheaper is either not going to deliver what they promise or is not paying their workers minimum wage.”

The cleaning industry was never glamorous but it was steady. Valued at $117 billion in the U.S., the sector employs 2.4 million people nationwide, according to the U.S. Commercial Cleaning Industry 2020 report recently released by market research firm Research and Markets.

This universal need translated into a steady and growing stream of opportunities for all of the 1.4 million players in the field, from large international building-management companies to smaller mom-and-pop firms like Perez’s.

The pandemic has upended that upward trajectory. A recent survey of building service contractors aka janitorial companies finds that they expect revenue growth for 2020 to fall from an expected 12% to just 3%. This has cleaning companies in Oregon, and everywhere, worried.

It also has them energized. Make no mistake, the cleaning industry is tough. Employee turnover is exceptionally high, ranging from 100% to 400% a year. Workers, often immigrants with limited proficiency in English, find themselves exposed to a variety of dangers from repetitive motion injuries to hazardous chemical exposures.

And because of the profession’s low-prestige status, cleaners are invisible, routinely ignored at best, blatantly disrespected at worst.

COVID-19, however, might change that archetype. Enhanced cleaning and sanitizing are being plugged as essential to reopening the economy. Businesses are asking for more disinfecting and sanitizing services, especially during the day, so employees and customers can bear witness to the work.

In fact, ABM Industries, one of the field’s larger corporations with $6.5 billion in annual revenues, touts its enhanced-cleaning program as “Safety Seen.”

Is this the moment where the entire cleaning industry repositions itself to essential stewards of public health?

That is a bit hyperbolic, to be sure, but José Barrios, owner of Cleansolution Services, is definitely noticing a shift. “Customers are now interested in preventive instead of reactive measures,” he says. “I’ve been in business for 20 years, and I’ve never seen this type of collaboration or awareness.”

1120 cleanIT4A5937José Barrios, owner of Cleansolution Services, at the company headquarters in North Portland.  Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

This new attitude translates into clients paying attention to simple things like encouraging sick employees to stay home, as well as more rarefied concerns, like the pH levels of cleaning chemicals.

For Barrios this has become a lifeline. He reports making up an initial 30% drop in revenue by providing extra sanitizing services and advising on and sourcing supplies for in-house use.

At the same time, Barrios notices another worrying trend: clients taking longer and longer to pay. “Sometimes I feel like a big, free line of credit,” he says, noting that he must compensate his 70 to 80 employees and subcontractors on time, every time. “That is the price of admission.”

Along with advising on cleaning chemicals, Barrios finds himself guiding clients on the many technologies like foggers, misters and electrostatic sprayers, which are suddenly flooding the market. He is not alone.

“It is the Wild West out there,” says Ben Walker, chief strategy officer at ManageMen, a Utah cleaning consultancy. Walker points to a deluge of startups, armed with a white paper, an investor and a promise that their device will “kill everything deader than dead and make it so you can clean for half the price.”

Ironically, whether or not these products live up to their claims may not matter when it comes to cleaning for COVID-19. Walker points to ever-changing information on how the disease spreads, noting some new evidence that suggests the virus lingers in the air much longer than originally thought.

“If this is true, then high dusting [a term for the detailed cleaning of the ceiling, light fixtures and air vents, which requires ladders and lifts] and the efficacy of the heating ventilation and air-conditioning system will be more important for risk prevention,” Walker says.

The uncertainty stresses out workers on the front line like Ruby Thompson, a cleaner at the University of Oregon in Eugene and member of SEIU Local 503. She reports that the demands of more cleaning and extra sanitizing are stretching her already understaffed department. Arming the crew with electrostatic sprayers is not helping.

1120 cleanIT4A6106Janitor Ruby Thompson outside the Lillis Business Complex on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.   Photo: Jason Kaplan

“We already broke three or four of them,” she says with a rueful laugh. Thompson adds that perfunctory training, a lack of clear communication from the university and rising COVID-19 cases in Lane County make things worse. “We may go back to phase one. What happens then? What will the university do if we get sick? Will we get paid?” she asks. “It is all so stressful.”

It is a valid concern. Walker states that just about every cleaning operation he works with has had an outbreak of COVID-19. This is especially troubling as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a whopping 53.2% of janitors and building cleaners are people of color, a group especially vulnerable to the disease.

Thompson, however, could consider herself lucky. As a union member she has some protections in place, including access to affordable health care. The conditions stand in sharp contrast to non-union janitors, with workers reporting layoffs, little to no training around COVID-19, no wage increases and no paid time off in the event they are exposed to the virus, and little access to affordable health care, according to SEIU Local 49 in Portland.

So will the janitorial work move from a “marginalized industry,” in the words of Walker, to something grander? Six months into the pandemic and the answer is a qualified “maybe.” Unions think that organization will be the key to making the change.

“Janitors are hopeful that their role in this crisis will result in the respect and dignity they deserve,” says Maggie Long, executive director of SEIU Local 49, via email. She hopes that adoption of the Heroes Act, which would “provide hazard pay for cleaners doing the essential and critical work to keep our economy running during the pandemic” will make a difference.

Cleaning consultant Walker thinks that the pandemic may be the catalyst for an attitudinal flip. “For people to take cleaning seriously, you have to have a major event,” he says, likening the situation to the elevation of the security industry after 9/11. “It is an opportunity.”

But PDX Cleaning’s Perez is a bit more gimlet-eyed. With her business only 50% back to normal, she is finding the time and energy to take her company national. But she is not expecting any more prestige.

“I hear about a few people saying thanks,” she says, adding that the extra recognition is usually reserved for health care workers. “But that will die off when we get back to normal.”

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