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March 23, 2020 – Health care facilities have been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The challenges that hospitals are facing include a scarcity of supplies, exponential increase in patients, and broader need to keep health care workers safe by ensuring that they are working in sterile environments.
Adam Seth Litwin, associate professor of industrial labor relations at Cornell University’s ILR School, says that for years hospitals have been increasingly relying on contractors to clean facilities, thereby delegating crucial disinfection responsibilities to workers with protections or ties to the institution. Litwin has written extensively about the relationship between labor and germ transmission. In a 2017 paper about superbugs and hospital cleaning staff he found that hospitals frequently outsource cleaning functions, potentially resulting in the unintended consequence of increasing the incidence of health care–associated infection.
“When employers ‘externalize’ work—replacing conventional employees with contractors or temps, they are giving up on relationships vested with trust and reciprocity, choosing instead to simply ‘transact.’ I know in times of trouble, I would much rather rely on those with whom I have a relationship, not those with whom I merely transact.
“In times like this, employers who have outsourced crucial work may come to regret it. They appreciate the relative ease with which they can shed labor, but they regret that workers no longer have a vested interest in the health and vitality of the business.
“COVID-19 appears to thrive outside the body for days at a time, underlining the importance of proper disinfection techniques. Sadly, outsourced cleaners tend be to ill-trained, underpaid and underappreciated. They turn over at high rates and are never integrated functionally or socially into the rest of the care team. If my own parents or children were receiving hospital care, I would sleep better at night knowing that their facility had a longstanding reputation for respecting all of its staff, no matter how distant some of those roles may appear to be from direct patient care.”