Maria Boutilier works in housekeeping at the Halifax Infirmary emergency department. Photo: Suzanne Rent

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Maria Boutilier started working in the housekeeping department at the Halifax Infirmary in the fall of 2019. Back then, she didn’t know that in several months she’d be working on the frontline of a pandemic.

Boutilier has worked in various roles at the QEII for the last 15 years. The work of the housekeeping staff in hospitals is already physically demanding and crucial work. COVID-19 has brought in more protocols for cleaning and more demands on the workers who do the job.

“Our job as a housekeeper never ends,” Boutilier says. “We want to get Nova Scotians in and out of the emergency room as soon as possible. We want to get them home.”

Boutilier is one of about 1,000 full-time, part-time, and casual housekeeping staff employed with the Nova Scotia Health Authority across the province. Six housekeeping staff work in the emergency department at the Infirmary where Boutilier works: two on day shift; two on night shift; and two on backshift.

For the housekeeping staff, there are more garbage cans to empty, more linens to strip from beds and get washed, and generally more expectations on keeping the rooms in the emergency department clean and safe. Boutilier says she will turn around about 25 rooms in the emergency department a day. That’s on top of her other work.

Boutilier, who is 53, works eight-hour shifts, so managing her time is crucial. She works three or four shifts in a row and then has a day or two off. “I know working like this I couldn’t do a 12-hour shift,” Boutilier says. “I really felt it this week. I have never worked this hard in my life. I’m in good shape for my age. It’s a good workout.”

Boutilier says the job is taking a physical toll and her body moves in every way during the job. She says she’s often bending down to do her work. There’s the reaching up to take down curtains, climbing ladders, or scrubbing floors. At least beds can be elevated, which helps with some of the physical strain. “I find that’s one of the challenging things now,” Boutilier says. “It’s hard on my back.”

Boutilier has a worksheet that outlines a list of tasks that need to be done during a shift. Before she goes into a room, Boutilier prepares for the work that needs to be done. While she’s in the room, she ignores her phone and pager, so she can focus on the job ahead. Some rooms have more equipment and nooks and crannies to clean.

“It’s not a matter of cleaning the beds,” Boutilier says. “It’s looking to see what might be contaminated. You don’t want to cut corners. You have to do it by the book.”

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Boutilier says a bottle of cleaner would last a few days. “Now you’re lucky if it lasts a day,” she says.

What she wears for protection depends on the room she’s working. She will always wear a mask and gloves and is constantly washing her hands. But if she has to clean a room where there was a patient who potentially has COVID-19, she wears an N95 mask, face shield, a gown, two pairs of gloves. “I really have to gear up,” she says.

Boutilier says the work in the emergency department also requires flexibility, understanding, and being a good listener. Every shift is different. She says the work done at the emergency department is a team effort among the doctors, nurses, patient attendants, ward aides, housekeeping, and security. “It’s a family environment down there. We may have a squabble or two, but it’s a good environment.”

The emergency department is one of the busiest departments in the hospital. “You see a lot in emergency,” Boutilier says. “It’s not for everybody.”

Boutilier is also an artist and exhibits her work under her maiden name, Maria Valverde. She’s now working on a solo exhibition that will be at the Nova Scotia Archives in December 2022. Working on her art at her home studio is a way to relax after a shift at the emergency room. Her art includes drawings, textiles, and multimedia. “Art is a good way for me to unwind,” Boutilier says.

Art by Maria Valverde
Art by Maria Valverde
Art by Maria Valverde
Art by Maria Valverde

She makes sure to take care of herself with plenty of sleep, eating well, and going for walks. She also listens to CBC French, which her late father listened to as well. Boutilier says he loved the Spanish music the station often plays.

“It makes me feel closer to him,” she says.

At work, she says she and her colleagues try to keep the environment light when they can. They tell jokes and keep a sense of humour. The staff will get together at the hospital cafeteria, talking at a safe distance from each other. She says the manager of housekeeping is also very helpful and supportive and checks in with staff often to see they are catching their buses and getting home safe. Hospital department heads work together on protocols. She says they are often being educated on COVID-19 and proper techniques for cleaning.

“I think initially when we started, it was overwhelming,” Boutilier says. “But then you get into a groove and you’re more confident in handling it. You have to be brave about it, calm, and focused. Everyone is dealing with this and we all want to get back to our lives.”

Boutilier says at first she did worry about contracting COVID-19 while working. But she has settled into a routine.

“Either I am really lucky or I am good at what I do and I understand what needs to be done,” she says.  She does worry about getting too tired and making mistakes, although she says those thoughts are rare.

“I tell myself, ‘You need to take a break and collect your thoughts. Don’t make a mistake,’” she says.

Boutilier lives in a condo in a building where several seniors live. She says she’d like to say hello to them, but doesn’t want to put them at risk either.

She says while the team at the Halifax Infirmary emergency room understand the value housekeeping brings to the safety of the patients and staff, she knows many people outside the hospital believe cleaning and housekeeping is a thankless job, and her work goes unnoticed and underappreciated. She’s hoping that attitude will change with this crisis.

“I think people now understand the value of how important it is to be a good housekeeper,” Boutilier says. “We are looked at very differently now. People realize there is a lot of skill involved. It’s a very humbling position to have. It’s not a glamourous job. Be kind and thank people for doing that position no matter where they’re located.”

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A white woman with chin length auburn hair and blue eyes, wearing a bright blue sweater

Suzanne Rent

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Thanks for the article about the work of housekeepers at the hospital. Not just about the work but the worker. The person of the worker. Makes me appreciate it and her coworkers more.