Not All Frontline Workers Work In Hospitals. Meet Janitor Dennis Osborn

Jun 12, 2020

Janitor Dennis Osborn wears this protective gear at work to make sure he doesn't bring COVID-19 home to his wife who has lung cancer.
Credit Courtesy of Dennis Osborn

While doctors and nurses are risking their lives working with COVID-19 patients in hospitals, some are risking theirs working in stores and making deliveries. Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Rebecca Thiele has been talking with other essential workers whose stories need to be told.

Dennis Osborn is a janitorial contractor who works for a pharmaceutical company in Indianapolis. He says he's thankful he's been able to work during the "Stay-At-Home" order — construction contractors working for the company haven't been as lucky. 

"The first guy told me he was going seven weeks. I couldn't survive seven weeks on my paycheck," Osborn says.

Osborn says he's worked during the "Stay-At-Home" order except for a few days when he felt sick. He worries about the spread of the virus because he doesn't have a thermometer at home and says his janitorial company hasn't been screening its workers. 

"They're not taking our temperatures," Osborn says. "The large pharmaceutical company I heard was going to do it, but I never have seen them do it to their employees."

Osborn says, at first, his janitorial company didn't provide him and his coworkers with masks. 

"So I started looking around, getting my own mask. I asked my sister 'Can you make me a mask if I needed it?' You know 'cause we didn't know what was going to happen," he says.

After a week, Osborn says the pharmaceutical company started requiring janitors to wear masks or they couldn't work. So the janitorial company started supplying them. 

Osborn says he worries about catching COVID-19, but he worries even more about bringing it home to his wife, Yavonna, who is in her 60s and has incurable lung cancer. 

"I worry about him as soon as he goes out the door," says Yavonna Osborn. "First thing I tell him when he gets ready to go out is to stay safe."

"People have criticized him before because of wearing all the safety gear, you know, his co-workers," she says. "But they're not realizing he can't afford to bring that home to me. I'm a high-risk person."

Osborn says he worries that his janitorial company hasn't been taking the virus seriously — especially when the news first came out. 

"When the management would talk about the COVID-19 and coronavirus, it felt like they was joking about it," he says. "And we have Latino workers there and they weren't even translating this to them — about what it is and how serious it is."

"'Essential' — I feel like I'm expendable," Osborn says.

READ MORE: Not All Frontlines Workers Work In Hospitals. Meet Grocery Store Butcher Juan Ruffin

He says he feels like anyone could do his job. That one day the pharmaceutical company could decide to go with another janitorial company or kick him out.

"It would make it more meaningful to me if I had essential pay to make it feel more worthwhile — and all my other co-workers, they're going through this stuff too," Osborn says.

Osborn says he thinks some employees at the pharmaceutical company are working overtime to get the hazard pay the company is giving to some of its workers. 

"I heard them say — a couple of coworkers — brag about how they're going to spend their money. What they're going to do at home and stuff around their home," he says.

"People thank me for my service," Osborn says. "Well, it'd be better if they'd thank me in money, you know." 

Contact Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.