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Custodians and cleaners fear for their lives and their livelihoods during the coronavirus pandemic

Wendy Melendez, a 46-year-old custodian at Tufts Medical Center for the past 10 years, worries about exposure during the coronavirus outbreak but depends on the paycheck.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For two decades, Zuleyma Burley has cleaned the offices of 222 Berkeley Street and 500 Boylston Street. She usually arrives after the office employees have shuffled off home or to after-work drinks, and she usually leaves well after midnight when public transit has ceased and the streets have emptied.

Since the coronavirus swept into Boston two weeks ago and sent most office workers home with a laptop in tow, Burley has continued to clean up after the few employees who still trickle into the Back Bay buildings. She did so up until Tuesday, even as the state’s confirmed cases soared past 1,000 and deaths reached the double digits.


But by Wednesday morning, Burley and dozens of her colleagues learned their employer would lay off 80 percent of the cleaning staff.

The 49-year-old is just one of more than 1,000 cleaners and custodians in Massachusetts and Rhode Island facing unemployment as building tenants cut costs and employers shrink their payrolls during the pandemic. Meanwhile, those who remain at work, in hospitals, grocery stores and condominiums, fear for their lives and their livelihoods each day.

“We are always aware of the risks of coming into contact with sick people,” said Wendy Melendez, 46, who has cleaned at Tufts Medical Center for 10 years, but says she now feel “impotent” in the face of this crisis. The hospital announced Friday that 10 of its employees had tested positive for the virus.

“There is almost a sense of panic. This can take you to your death,” she said.

Doris Landaverde, 42, is a mother of three who works as a custodian at Harvard University. While deep cleaning the campus after students left last week, she worried about her and her coworkers’ lack of protective masks as they went through the dorms and classrooms.


A spokesperson for Harvard maintains that each custodian is given adequate personal protective equipment and guidance for safely using this equipment in spaces where the coronavirus might be present.

Earlier this week, Landaverde developed a cough that she thought was caused by the harsh chemicals used to clean. On Wednesday, she started to have chills and trouble catching her breath. She now worries she may have the coronavirus, but her doctor told her that she couldn’t be tested so she should self-isolate in her Ayer home.

Burley, who typically works 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., is a full-time employee with benefits of UG2, a facility services provider. Oxford Properties, a Toronto-based multinational corporation, contracts with UG2 and owns the Back Bay buildings that overlook the Charles River and house well-known companies such as Guggenheim, Salesforce, Draft Kings, and Wayfair.

Despite work-from-home orders at most companies, some office workers continued to show up through this week, according to Burley. UG2 supplied its cleaners with Virex, a minty blue hospital-grade disinfectant that requires dilution to make it safe for use.

The work is nerve-wracking. Burley lives with both her parents who are in their late 60s, a demographic particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. But she appreciates the paycheck and takes pride in her work.

“We don’t know where these people are going or who’ve they been meeting with. So of course, every day I'm thinking about this virus,” she said. “But I feel a big responsibility to keep people healthy.”


Oxford Properties informed UG2 Tuesday that it would be scaling back its contract at the request of tenants, who foot the bill for such services and have instituted work-from-home mandates.

“The request to our vendor to reduce the size of cleaning teams reflects the reality of the dramatic reduction in foot traffic within our buildings, which is a combined result of Governor Baker’s mandate to stay home, coupled with our tenants mandating work from home policies,” an Oxford Properties spokesperson wrote in a statement to the Globe. “This reduction also enables us to minimize the risk of exposure for the cleaning staff required to be on-site, as well as our tenants that are still providing essential services."

As a result of this reduced contract and others in the state, UG2 will likely lay off roughly 150 workers, two-thirds of whom are full-time employees, a rarity in an industry known for contract and part-time work, according to SEIU 32BJ, the union behind service workers in the Northeast.

Cleaning companies rely on contracts with property owners to sustain their payroll. Medford-based Boston Quality Cleaning Services said Tuesday nearly 60 percent of customers had suspended their service. Partners Solutions, which has three Massachusetts offices, has lost half its clients and remains afloat mainly because of government employers.

The union estimates that roughly 1,000 cleaners in Massachusetts and Rhode Island will be laid off by the weekend as a result of these voided contracts. Members work at airports, local universities and colleges, malls, and commercial spaces.


“Building owners should not try to profit on the backs of workers already living paycheck to paycheck during this time of crisis,” said Service Employees Union Vice President Roxana Rivera in a statement signed by elected officials from across the region. “They must give back to the workers who have contributed to their businesses for years and years instead of abandoning our vulnerable community members. This is a public health issue in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.”

Lillian San Juan has cleaned at Fenway Park for the last 14 years, helping the team and its fans enjoy three World Series titles during her tenure. She’d logged just eight hours this season before she was sent home with word that baseball season had been postponed indefinitely. She is employed by Aramark, a global food service, facilities, and uniform services provider that has a longstanding contract with the Red Sox.

“We were all expecting to work and now we’re not receiving the money we were planning on,” she said.

Last week, the Red Sox pledged to disperse $1 million among some part-time and seasonal workers affected by the shutdown, but that aid, which will amount to roughly $770 per person, only benefits workers directly employed by the club, such as groundskeepers. (The Globe is also owned by Red Sox owner, John Henry.)

“Nobody has called us or sent us a card,” San Juan said of herself and her coworkers, who have been communicating via WhatsApp since the shutdown began. She admits she’s fearful of seeking cleaning jobs elsewhere where she might be at risk of coming in contact with the virus.


Aramark did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As the crisis heightens in the coming weeks, the union is bracing for even more layoffs. Meanwhile, within hospitals, the work done by cleaners like Melendez will become even more essential to mitigating the virus’s spread.

“I fear for myself and my coworkers, but at the same time, I feel like I’m doing an important job and standing shoulder to shoulder with them through this crisis,” she said. “So long as coronavirus patients are coming into the hospital, I could be the reason that that contagion doesn’t spread and endanger others.”

Staff reporter Deirdre Fernandes contributed to this story.

Hanna Krueger can be reached at Follow her @hannaskrueger.