How to handle plumbing and other services during a pandemic
Routines have been upended as the world reels from the coronavirus pandemic. Gatherings are canceled, businesses are shuttered and people are encouraged to stay home as much as possible. Some of us can work remotely, but what about workers who perform their jobs in our homes, such as plumbers, housekeepers, electricians or repair technicians -- many of whom count on individual appointments, rather than a fixed salary, for their livelihoods?
It's a question many homeowners have asked themselves: Should you keep regular appointments or cancel them?
Cancel unless you have an emergency, said Paula Cannon, a virologist and professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. She urges people to really think about what constitutes an emergency; a dirty house isn't an emergency, she said.
"We want to change our behavior for the short term so we can absolutely limit the risk to ourselves and to other people," she said. "If you are privileged enough to be able to afford a house cleaner, please give your house cleaner the human gift of saying, 'Don't come to my house, and I'm going to pay you because thank you for everything you've done.' "
George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco's School of Medicine and the director of its Prevention and Public Health Group, agrees. "This is not the time to remodel your house," he said. "This is about essential services that you need to have to be able to live."
And if a service is essential, such as fixing a broken heater or a flooding basement? We asked some experts for tips to navigate these interactions.
• Ask companies to detail their safeguards
Many businesses are still operating but have increased their hygiene protocols and modified their polices to reflect the changing situation and to adhere to public health guidelines. If you don't know what your service provider is doing to protect its customers and employees, ask.
Chuck Khiel, vice president of Fred Home Improvement in Bethesda, Maryland, whose services include carpentry, electrical, HVAC, painting and plumbing, said his company is adhering to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We're just keeping the lines of communication open and making sure (customers) know we're OK and we're inquiring about how they're doing," he said.
Khiel said his company has added additional sick-leave days to existing policies for hourly employees, who accrue leave based on tenure, in case they need to be quarantined. But nearly a quarter of U.S. workers don't have access to paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Chris Thompson of Michael & Son Services, which does plumbing, HVAC and electrical repairs in Washington and Baltimore areas, said the company has reviewed social distancing and hygiene procedures, such as proper hand-washing techniques and using alcohol-based hand sanitizer, with its technicians.
Khiel and Thompson said they have required employees to tell them if they're sick and to stay home.
• Create a safe work environment
The customer shares in the responsibility to create a safe situation for everyone. Discuss with the service provider how the visit will go so both parties are on the same page.
Abe Ayoub, founder of Abe's Plumbing in Northern Virginia, said he typically doesn't mind when customers watch him work, but lately he has asked that anyone who does stays at least 6 feet away, the minimum distance recommended by the CDC. He said that he's washing his hands, using sanitizing wipes and wearing masks as much as possible.
"I try to keep my distance in the homes, but sometimes it's bothering me when people don't keep their distance or touch my shoulder," he said. "I don't want to be aggressive or offensive, but I don't want you to come close to me."
At Fred Home Improvement, Khiel said all contractors are now using dust walls to cordon off service areas and prevent close contact, a practice he said was previously done only on carpentry projects. "If you set up a dust wall, the homeowner is probably not coming behind a dust wall while the work is going on," he said. "We're really trying to keep you out of the workspace."
If any work can be done outside, such as a plumber assembling a pipe, Cannon said that's good, because "they should only be coming into the home for the minimum amount of time to do the job."
To make it easier to avoid transmission by touching shared surfaces, she advises clearing a path to the workspace ahead of time; create a clear path to the area, and leave all doors open so workers don't have to touch doorknobs or other surfaces.
Identify points you don't want touched and cover them. You could even wrap a banister in wrapping paper, she said. "Tear it off when they've gone so you don't have to be freaking out about, 'Did I wipe down every switch they touched?' " Before the work starts, put away loose objects and do a deep-clean of the area. Covering the area in a drop cloth helps, too.
Provide access to a sink, soap, water, paper towels and a plastic bag to dispose of them so the technician can wash their hands. Once they're done, clean the space.
"You want to be considerate of the contractor, because it's not just them coming into your house; it's a mutual respect here," Cannon said. "You've entered into a contract to model this good behavior that's thoughtful and respectful and, frankly, a little bit weird."
Both Cannon and Rutherford said leaving the house while the repair happens is a good way to create distance. "Go sit in your backyard or take a walk," Rutherford said.
• Stay up-to-date on your state's guidelines
As some states ease shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, the question of whether to continue home services may become more clear -- or more confusing. Most protocols say that only essential workers may work, and many sanitation and cleaning services fall into this category.
In Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, for example, plumbers, electricians, HVAC service, and cable, phone and internet providers are exempt from ordered closures (plus janitorial services in Maryland). And guidelines are changing frequently.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy organization for domestic workers such as housekeepers and nannies, has a tip sheet for employers and established a fund to help workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Its advice includes establishing "open and respectful communication," being upfront if anyone has symptoms and creating policies with employees that will help, such as flexible cancellations and paying for cancellations. It also suggests having cleaning supplies and gloves, soap and hand sanitizer on hand for workers.