Caregivers and house cleaners: What a safe return to work after lockdown might look like

April 30, 2020

Across the country, people who've been staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19 are talking about going back to work. States are providing plans to make this happen, and workplaces are being given guidelines for keeping employees safe. But what if you work in someone else's home? 

Whether you're a nanny, babysitter, senior caregiver, house cleaner, dog walker or another caregiver who works in a home, you might be wondering how you can know going back to work is safe, what you should discuss with your employer before doing so and how your day-to-day should change while COVID-19 is still a concern. Here are some answers to your biggest questions. 

When will it be safe to head back to work in an employer’s home?

"The timeframe for these kinds of employees [to head back to work] is really different and it's a highly individual decision between the employer and the caregiver," says Georgine Nanos, physician and CEO of Kind Health Group in San Diego, a board certified Family Physician with advanced training in epidemiology and public health. Here are a few things to look out for.

  • Check the local and state stay-at-home guidelines. They're constantly changing and are going to vary, depending on how much COVID-19 is being spread in your area. Know that if there's a spike in cases, previously lifted orders could be put back in place. 

  • Evaluate your comfort level. The decision to go to work depends on more than just being allowed to by law. It's important that you feel comfortable doing so. "This is already a time of great anxiety. You don't want your job to be a source of extra anxiety and stress and potential harm, really," says Nanos.

  • Consider everyone’s health status. Take a look at your own health and that of the people living in the home you'll be in. If any of you has a health condition that puts you at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, then you may think twice. However, people with health concerns may also be the ones who need care the most.

  • Don’t overlook mental and emotional health. "Caregivers should work only when they are in good physical health but also in good mental and emotional health," says Rachel Charlupski, founder of The Babysitting Company.  That said, if you are experiencing extreme mental or emotional difficulties, make sure to consult with your doctor as soon as you can.

  • Look at the current household. Charlupski also recommends you check to see how many people will be in the home before you decide to go back. Since many people's work situations have changed, you may be exposed to more people than you previously were while on the job.

  • Consider whether your work can be done remotely. Nanos points out the example of tutoring, which can often be done over Zoom, FaceTime or another video call app.

  • Do a gut check: Do you feel comfortable heading to work in this environment? "There's a lot of trust that has to go into that decision," says Nanos. You are trusting each other to practice proper hand hygiene and cleaning methods, as well as to not put yourselves into situations where you could be at higher risk for catching and spreading the virus. 

What should I discuss with my employer before returning to work or taking a new position?

Before going to work, you should understand COVID-19, its symptoms, how it's spread and the best ways to prevent the spread. Beyond that, it's important you both know that things are going to be much different than they were before the pandemic.

"This isn't like unleashing a dam that's been holding back water but more like slowly opening up a faucet to a trickle," says Jay Varkey, associate professor of medicine and senior physician at Emory University School of Medicine, who has experience in creating COVID-19 safety protocols. "Any kind of move is not a restoration of a status quo or a kind of return to complete normal, but it's a slow resumption and a reassessment in terms of safety."

It's a great idea to have an honest discussion with your employer about procedures and expectations in this new reality. "Have an open dialogue," Nanos urges, to make sure you're on the same page in your unique situation.

Some things you should discuss include:

  • What you're both doing outside of the work environment. While it might be OK to go back to work, experts agree that physical distancing will be recommended and probably pretty important for a while — likely, for months, if not longer. Tell each other what situations you might be in where you could be exposed to the virus. Be on the same page about what precautions you're going to be taking to prevent spreading the virus to each other as much as can be helped. 

  • What safety supplies will be provided to you. Nanos says it's usually up to the employers to provide items like alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and soap for employees to use. If your employer isn't going to ensure you have the proper items to do your job safely, it might give you pause — and for good reason.

  • How you all will handle sick time. You and the people in the home should both agree that, if any of you experiences symptoms, you'll inform the other. "Employees should be empowered to say, 'I'm sick. I can't come to work. Going to work sick puts other people at risk,'" says Varkey. "There should be a good process for communicating that to their employer. I know that hasn't been the case in the past, but it really does have to be the case moving forward."

"We always encourage families to give caregivers a written copy of what practices, including hygiene practices are expected — like taking shoes off, washing hands, how to plate meals, sanitizing surfaces and bringing an extra set of clothes," says Charlupski. Consider putting any sick leave rights in a written agreement as well, to further protect yourself.

What general precautions should I take to protect myself, my employer and our families once I return to work?

Working in someone else's home requires you to share space with others, but there are some ways you can keep yourself and residents of the home as safe as possible. This includes:

  • Physical distancing: If you can stay at least six feet away from any of the people in the home — for example, if you can clean while they take a walk or are at work — try to do that as much as possible.

  • Masks: When you can't physically distance yourself, wear a cloth mask over your nose and mouth. Our experts note that a mask protects others more than it protects you — so it’s fantastic if everyone in the home wears them — and that wearing a mask must always be used in conjunction with good hand hygiene.

  • Hand and face hygiene: Avoid touching your face while you're in the home, and practice frequent hand-washing. Wash your hands when you enter and before you leave, as well as any time you touch a surface that may not have been disinfected.

  • Keeping surfaces clean: Any surface that is often touched — countertops, doorknobs, light switches — should be frequently cleaned. Varkey says soap, alcohol and most regular household cleaners are effective against SARS-Co-V-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. If you want to be sure a cleaning product you have works to kill the virus, check the label or see this EPA list.

If you do work that normally entails wearing gloves, like cleaning or helping an elderly person use the bathroom, then continue wearing the gloves. But Varkey says that glove-wearing is often done incorrectly and that viruses can be spread by people who aren't changing their gloves or washing their hands after using them. "Gloves are never a substitute for hand hygiene," Varkey says. "Which is why I always advise anyone who wears gloves that the first step that should be done after removal of those gloves is cleaning your hands."

And last but definitely not least, "I can't stress enough: phone sanitization is as important as hand sanitization," adds Nanos. Clean your cell phone as often as possible!

What job-specific safety precautions should I be aware of?

Every single work situation is unique, and so you'll have to examine yours closely as you prepare for your return. 

If you care for children: Kids can't really be relied upon to keep their hands clean or to avoid touching their face, so it's important you do those things yourself. You can also remind the child or help them wash regularly throughout your time together and frequently clean surfaces and toys.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, masks should not be placed on children under age 2, so the responsibility of wearing a mask should fall to you. You should also stay aware of the child's symptoms while you're together. Tell their parent or guardian right away if you notice any.

Read more: 6 questions you should ask before caring for kids during COVID-19

If you care for a senior citizen: "You should be wearing a mask because your risk of exposing them is very high, and the fallout from that is really serious," says Nanos. The mask protects the person from any droplets that might be emitted from your nose and mouth. Wear gloves when physically interacting with the person you're caring for, but remember to also wash your hands after removing them.

Read more: What seniors and caregivers need to know about coronavirus

If you clean homes: Wear a mask if you're not staying socially distant from the people who live there. As we mentioned above, you probably don't have to change out your cleaning products for something different, but definitely check the EPA list to be sure.

"Household products that are used for cleaning should have a labeled indication on what it has activity against," says Varkey. "But almost all of those household cleaners should have activity against coronavirus, including the specific novel coronavirus [a.k.a. COVID-19]."

It's important to begin with the cleanest place in the area and end in the dirtiest, Varkey says. "As an example, in a hospital room, you would end up doing a patient bathroom last. The intent there is that you don't take that dirty area and contaminate an area that previously was clean. That principle of moving from clean to dirty is something that I think we can apply in a house as well."

Nanos recommends cleaning doorknobs, door and cabinet handles and other fixtures that are often touched but can be forgotten.

Val Oliveira, founder of Val’s Services, a Chicago-based cleaning and organizing company, has been running her business through the pandemic, as it was deemed an essential business. She says cleaners should be extra careful about the items you're transporting from home to home, such as bottles of cleaning products and the vacuum cleaner.

To reduce the spread of germs between homes, Oliveira and Varkey also suggest: 

  • Have clients provide their own products, whenever possible.

  • Make sure to use a new sponge and microfiber mop refill in each house. 

  • Use disposable paper towels to clean bathrooms. 

  • Wipe down equipment like carts, vacuum cleaners or bottles of cleaner with disinfectant after each home's cleaning.

  • Wash your hands when arriving at a client's place and having hand sanitizer on hand throughout a cleaning.

  • Use sanitizing wipes to lock and close up a client’s door as a final step.

If you care for pets: Varkey recommends washing your hands when you enter the home — before you touch the pet — and after you touch the pet. There's more research that needs to be done, say the experts, to find out if pets really can catch and spread the virus that causes COVID-19, so taking the extra precaution could prevent the potential for a problem.

Until we know more, the CDC recommends not allowing pets to interact with people or other animals outside the home, so skip the dog park for now. You should also be careful to keep the pet at least six feet away from others while you're out for walks. You can keep tabs on pet recommendations in case they change at the CDC website.

Beyond those guidelines, you and your employer will need to work together to create a work environment and home that makes everyone feel safe and cared for.

"Show some extra love on both ends because it's a very uncertain time and people are handling it really differently, and they have different situations," says Nanos. "Showing kindness and compassion to each other is going to go a long way and will help prevent a lot of misunderstandings and issues, as long as we can have an open dialogue about each other's expectations. And that may mean creating a space to talk about our feelings where you normally may not have that kind of relationship with your [employer]. That might be something they want and need, and vice versa."

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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