Every day, Leonard Orellana and his fellow custodial engineers would arrive at work to open up a local high school. He would start the boiler so that the building would be warm and comfortable for the staff and eventually students who came to fill it, check on the work from the crew that had finished up the evening clean up and sanitize rooms in an attempt to keep the coronavirus at bay.
“We come to work every day, during the whole pandemic up until now,” Orellana said.
It wasn’t easy work. In some cases, it felt downright perilous, Orellana said. If people in the building got sick, it was up to the custodians to clean it up — a task that was normal right up until the disease in question was killing thousands of Americans every day, overwhelming hospitals and straining the medical infrastructure.
“My guys would ask me, ‘Hey, you know, what’s going on?’ and I would say, ‘We just have got to be here and do our jobs,’” Orellana said.
Orellana was hesitant to get the coronavirus vaccine at first — his children are grown, so there was little risk of him spreading it to his family members. However, he does live with a roommate who is a bit older than he is, and he became concerned that he was putting their health in jeopardy by avoiding the inoculation.
“Thousands and thousands of people are dying every day when it first started, so I was like, I’m just going to get the shot, too, because with my job and everything else I was going to get it. I would hate to bring it home to her and cause a problem, so I decided to get it,” Orellana said.
He was glad that he did. Everyone had a different experience getting the shot, but his side effects were very mild: a heat flash through his body.
“So, I told myself, I think I needed that shot,” Orellana said. “Whatever it does to your body is more good than bad.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, essential workers were given a hero’s applause, but the science on how to keep them safe was far from settled. Now, at least, they’re receiving masks, bottled water and other personal protective gear as they do the work to keep the 1,500 students that now occupy the building on a near daily basis as safe as possible.
For their efforts, the custodial engineers received a bonus of $1,000, Orellana said. It didn’t strike Orellana as measuring up to the risk that he and his colleagues were taking.
“Risking your life for $1,000, it isn’t really worth it,” Orellana said. Some people chose not to come in at all, but nobody knows the building quite like Orellana. Because of that, he tries not to miss work if he doesn’t have to.
“If I can move, I’ll be here. If I can’t move, I might not be here,” he said. “People come to work and do what they need to.”
Still, he hopes that the district will consider raising wages to match the risk.
Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News.
Read more of the Dec. 15-21, 2021 issue.