Privatization of cleaning services have long history of increased costs

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most public health officials took time to talk about the importance of sanitizing surfaces and personal hygiene. In locations such as grocery stores, schools, gyms, restaurants and bars, cleaning services were enhanced to ensure public safety.

In hospitals, there is a long, documented history that enhanced cleaning services have lead to reduced hospital acquired infections (HAI) and that saving money with contracted services for cleaning often result in increased HAI which in turn lead to increased care costs for the very system trying to reduce costs.

As a society, we, at one time, decided that health was a major investment we were willing to make. The term “weakest link” applies especially in terms of health – as we’ve been reminded of daily for almost nine straight months.

Here in Alberta, the topic of outsourcing non-clinical functions has been raised again, as if cleaning is a non-essential service in healthcare facilities.

“Why do cleaners and cafeteria workers have to be government employees?” The Premier’s chief of issues-mongering and government employee, Matt Wolf, asked on social media.

Don’t even get me started on the phone company.

B.C., which had been contracting out services since the 1990’s, saw employees being asked to do more with less (and for less) which lead to less than acceptable outcomes.

Cleaning services aren’t exactly heralded as dream jobs. They’re jobs that people can do without even speaking the language – except in hospitals and care homes and during HAI outbreaks or global pandemics.

There is little room for advancement in the profession as a whole and also few “perks”. Cleaners don’t get bonuses for reduced infections (but hospital administrators might). Cleaners don’t get awards.

Yet we rely on them, and their skills, to keep us – and our loved ones – safe.

In 2012, CBC’s Marketplace went undercover to see how often high touch surfaces were cleaned in B.C. and Ontario hospitals and found a disturbing number were not cleaned at all over a 24-hour period.

Cleaners interviewed for that segment said they “didn’t have time”. Not having time, however, leads to increased health risks that fall back onto the hospital with additional admissions and longer stays.

In hospitals where outbreaks of HAI-specific viruses took place, enhanced cleaning protocols were brought in, in some cases doubling the cleaning hours. In each instance, infection rates were reduced significantly.

Infections come at an increased cost for hospitals as well – an extended stay due to an HAI can cost around $50k per patient.

Not to mention the human costs. People die from HAIs.

But back to the point. Should cleaners and cafeteria staff be well paid? Should they have benefits?

In the middle of a pandemic, the Alberta government is defending paying cleaners less money because they don’t need to be government employees.

The Alberta government is legitimately saying, in the middle of a pandemic, that Albertans shouldn’t have to pay decent wages and benefits to people who “just clean”. Even if lives depend on them “just cleaning”.

These are people we rely on as much as our healthcare providers. One need only look at the number of sustained outbreaks in hospitals and care homes to see that.

And those who have lost family because of a visit to the hospital that resulted in a COVID-19 infection shouldn’t have to wonder if spending more on cleaning could have let their family member come back home again.

It’s not a conversation we should be having but when the bottom line is money – not care – we better get used to it.

This post contains opinion.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political commentator physically distancing in Southern Alberta. Connect: @Mitchell_AB for more, @thisweekinAB for posts @politicalRnD for something in between

Your support is greatly appreciated – sign up for a monthly contribution on Patreon or make a one-time donation for insights that make sense.