Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at email@example.com
Before the pandemic forced millions of people to hunker down indoors and work from home, the home was a different kind of workplace. Domestic workers were cleaning houses, caring for young children, providing social and medical support to the elderly and people with disabilities, and getting dinner on the table for their employers, even as they struggled to afford meals for their own kids.
For many nannies, housekeepers, and home-care aides, COVID-19 has turned the domestic sphere upside down. Many are out of work and do not know when it will be safe to enter others’ homes again; others continue to work but constantly risk being exposed or exposing others to the virus.
Before Philadelphia went into lockdown, Maria, who has been a domestic worker for twenty-four years, spent every day shuttling in and out of people’s homes. In the morning, she cared for a ninety-four-year-old woman who lived alone, cooking her breakfast, doing her makeup, and making sure she was well looked after, before cleaning another two houses and then picking up her children from school. On the weekends, she cleaned AirBnB apartments. In mid-March, as the city shuttered businesses and social activities, she suddenly was cut off from her twenty-five clients.
Speaking in Spanish through a translator, she said she felt “my life has been closed off. . . . I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m really sad and really hoping that they find a cure. But my greatest sadness is that I’m closed in. I’m away from my clients and the families that I take care of.”
As for her own family, she said, “there’s also a fear of running out of food and basic necessities.” Due to her “extreme panic about getting sick,” she was staying indoors. Her husband, the head chef of a restaurant, had to go out to work a few hours each day, but “he’s really scared of going outside and getting sick” and then exposing Maria and their son.
Only two of her twenty-five clients had fully paid up the wages they owe; none had gotten in touch about when she can return to work.
Maria had enough food for about two months. But when asked what she would do if the stay-at-home orders dragged on for months, she said, “I’m worried about not having enough food. I’m afraid of getting the virus. I don’t have emotional energy to think about what’s going to happen, if this lasts for another [several] months. . . . I’m just in a really big panic right now.”
The National Domestic Workers Alliance is now collecting donations for a coronavirus care fund to help support workers whose jobs are disrupted by the crisis. In addition, the NDWA is advising domestic workers on how to protect themselves if they are still working. They could, for example, try to limit exposure to others and visitors and ask their employers “if anyone in the home has any flu-like symptoms or may have been exposed to someone who has, and wait to resume work until after a doctor has cleared that person for contact with others.” But domestic workers, who typically earn extremely low wages, will struggle with the tension between keeping themselves and others safe and going out and earning a living.
Many have no access to unemployment benefits, paid leave time, or overtime pay. Those who contract COVID-19 will likely have to cope without access to basic health insurance or Medicaid. And the many domestic workers who are undocumented immigrants will be almost completely excluded from the relief measures in the latest rescue package passed by Congress.
But beyond the immediate economic crisis domestic workers now face, the COVID-19 crisis will likely do irreparable damage to the livelihoods and relationships that people like Maria have formed over the years. Even when locked down at home, she kept thinking about the people she cared for:
My hope is that they find a cure so that we can go back to our normal life. . . . For domestic workers, it’s important for us to raise our voices. Because we need a lot of help right now; there are a lot of people that don’t know how to get help. . . . I want to tell the world to be patient and that we’re gonna move forward. I have faith that we’re all going to get through this together and come out more unified. I’m in a really good position to share and I want to take care of others, and we have to help each other, but this virus is really making me depressed and sad, and it’s completely turned my life around.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.