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Opinion: Essential but invisible: cleaning workers deserve respect, especially in the COVID-19 era

With their role cleaning and sanitizing our homes, hospitals and businesses, there is no doubt that cleaning workers are essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Yet this group of professionals is almost always overlooked and often not treated with the respect and dignity that we deserve. 

Becoming a professional cleaner was not something that I planned on. 

When I was pregnant with my daughter, who is now 7, I started a small cleaning business. My goal was to earn some income while having the flexibility to care for my family. My business has enabled me to do that, and it has also given me the opportunity to employ others.  

These days, I am mostly working from an office, not in the field cleaning, but I am acutely aware of the cruelty and disrespect that cleaning professionals are too often forced to endure. 

Fátima Alhexia Boylen

At a local museum where I often take my daughter, another mom casually asked one of the professional cleaners who was in the women’s restroom with her, “Why do you bother dressing up and putting on makeup if you’re just cleaning?” 

I asked the cleaner if she wanted me to contact a manager on her behalf, and she looked at me and shrugged. “No, I’m used to it.” 

Disrespect and invisibility is not something anyone should have to get used to. But sadly, for cleaning workers, it’s everywhere. 

Shopping recently in a local supermarket, I heard employees stocking shelves in the next aisle, jeering and taunting a man who was passing up one aisle, down the next with a broom. 

Their racist harassment was more than I could tolerate. Abandoning my shopping cart, I marched over to the next aisle and confronted them. At first they thought I – with my brown skin and accented English – was a member of the cleaning crew and turned their scorn on me. Disgusted and quaking with anger, I walked away to find a manager. 

In conversations with the company’s corporate office, I made clear that I didn’t want these few employees to be fired – I wanted training for all employees. I am happy to report that the grocery store did just that, and every employee of the store received training.

These examples highlight the degree to which people who clean are overlooked and underappreciated – and I am tired of it. 

My incredible team of professional cleaners is a 50-50 mix of immigrants and American-born workers. Many of my team members who are immigrants hold professional degrees in their home countries. Accountants, engineers, and psychologists at home, these people have sacrificed so much to come to this country and build a better life for their children. 

Many of my American-born team members are students, piecing together work and studies, or moms – like me – who value the flexible schedule that cleaning offers. 

Sadly, I have had to let most of my workers go as the pandemic has dragged on. I supported them as long as I could. Today, with so many of my clients facing dire financial circumstances themselves, it’s unclear when I will be able to bring back the people I had to let go. 

It has been particularly painful to lose my team, because as someone who built a business from the ground up – in a country that is not my own – hiring my first crew member was a milestone. I might not have gotten to that point but for the guidance of individuals and organizations supporting minority-owned micro businesses like mine. 

In particular, Mi Casa Resource Center, which has supported underserved entrepreneurs in Denver for more than 40 years, was an important part of my journey.  Training courses and one-on-one consulting, in my native language of Spanish, helped my business grow. 

It was around that time that I transitioned from many small residential contracts to a handful of larger, commercial clients. Then COVID-19 struck. 

My clients – mostly churches, restaurants and small office buildings – have taken a hard hit. Some are open on a very limited basis; others hope to open soon; others have closed for good. 

After all the hardship we’ve all experienced this year, a kind act can provide a boost of faith for someone who may desperately need it. I will continue to confront injustices as I see them and to lead with kindness — but I need your help:

Keep your cleaning crew/person. Even if you have to reduce hours, try to keep your cleaners employed. A little income is better than none at all. 

Smile and say hello. With kindness, and a moment’s pause to interact, we can recognize and honor the humanity of the person doing the cleaning. 

Tip your cleaners at year’s end. Whether it’s cash, a gift, or a food basket, for people who are often overlooked, any gesture of thanks is deeply appreciated. 

As this challenging year comes to a close, even the smallest acts of kindness can go a long way toward recognizing another person’s worth, lifting spirits during a dark time, and building a community where we are all worthy of respect. 


Fátima Alhexia Boylen is the founder and president of Boylen Cleaning Services in Denver.


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