Get Sick Or Starve: How A Deep Cleaner Is Surviving The Pandemic

"We are literally being put up against a wall and making a choice between life and death, between working and eating or not working and not eating."

Photography by Rachel Woolf

Ezzie Dominguez estimates she gets around two hours of sleep every night. 

The 38-year-old wakes up each morning at 6 a.m. to head to her first job as a building manager at a local nonprofit in Denver. She’s been designated an essential worker, making her the only employee who is still coming into her office during the coronavirus outbreak. 

Afterward, she usually gets a few hours at home to nap and spend time with her husband and two sons before she heads out to her second job as a contract emergency deep cleaner for a large cleaning company. Dominguez, an immigrant from Mexico, says she cleans six to eight buildings seven days a week, including office buildings, airports and even hospitals ― many of which, she suspects, have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Ezzie Dominguez waters plants left behind by fellow employees at her day job as a building manager on March 31, 2020, in Denv
Ezzie Dominguez waters plants left behind by fellow employees at her day job as a building manager on March 31, 2020, in Denver.

When she finally gets home from her deep cleaning job, she sanitizes everything inside and outside of her car. She strips down and puts her clothes in a bucket that she keeps by her front door to be washed immediately. Sometimes, she’s so tired she simply throws them in the garbage. In the shower, she scrubs her entire body ― praying she hasn’t been exposed to the coronavirus and is unknowingly giving it to her children. 

Her head usually hits the pillow sometime around 4 a.m. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Dominguez and her husband were making enough to keep them afloat. She used to work as a house cleaner on the weekends and she nannied two children in the evenings after her building management job on the weekdays. But all of her house cleaning and nannying clients have stopped offering work.

Dominguez poses in her deep cleaning outfit on March 30, 2020, at her house in Denver.
Dominguez poses in her deep cleaning outfit on March 30, 2020, at her house in Denver.

Now, Dominguez feels even more overwhelmed as the coronavirus spreads and she tries to survive. She’s immunocompromised — she beat cancer four times and has been in remission for only six months. She’s now the sole breadwinner in her family. Her few moments of downtime are spent contemplating the hardest decision of her life: Get sick or starve. 

“I know that I’m putting a death sentence on myself and my family,” Dominguez told HuffPost by phone last week. “But we are literally being put up against a wall and making a choice between life and death, between working and eating or not working and not eating.”

There are over 2.5 million nannies, house cleaners and caregivers in the U.S., and they have historically been excluded from basic labor protections under federal and state laws. The overwhelming majority ― 90% ― of domestic workers in the U.S. are women, and they are disproportionately women of color and immigrant women.

We are human beings. ... We’re no different than you. And we deserve to have the same protections as everyone else. Ezzie Dominguez

Like Dominguez, domestic workers aren’t afforded the same benefits as white-collar workers: Eighty-two percent of nannies, house cleaners and caregivers lack paid sick days, leaving many to choose between a paycheck and their health. 

While President Donald Trump signed a coronavirus aid bill in March that will give relief to some domestic workers, the 10 days of sick leave it provides technically only apply to domestic workers who are paid on the books by their employers. That leaves some workers, including Dominguez, out. The coronavirus has proven how essential workers like her are, but also how little the U.S. is willing to do to protect and provide for them. 

“Domestic workers have been some of the first responders in the midst of this public health crisis,” Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said on a press call last week. “The people who care for us and continue to care through the crisis have little to no support to care for themselves or their families.” 

Like many workers, Dominguez doesn’t feel she has any choice but to keep working to support her family. Her husband had two jobs, but lost one not long before the pandemic started and the other as a result of the economic shutdown. Naturally, Dominguez doesn’t have the luxury of remote work, nor does she receive paid vacation time and sick leave. She is still able to receive paid time off, sick leave and health care for herself and her family from her job at the nonprofit.

From left: Jorge Garcia, 15, stands with his mother, Ezzie Dominguez, who is holding her son Cristian Dominguez, 2, next to h
From left: Jorge Garcia, 15, stands with his mother, Ezzie Dominguez, who is holding her son Cristian Dominguez, 2, next to her husband, Jesus Dominguez, as they all pose on March 30, 2020, at their Denver home.

But she’s worried all the time, she says. At her daytime job, Dominguez oversees the operations for 65 nonprofit groups that are housed in her building. It’s a good job in many ways, but the amount of work is overwhelming now that she’s the only employee coming in, she said. She has to sanitize everyone’s mail and packages and distribute them throughout the offices. She also waters all of the plants of the employees who are now working from home. There are so few people going to work in the Denver area that her boss gave her a letter stating she’s an essential employee in case police stop her. 

Her deep cleaning job is what worries her the most. She earns $10 an hour ― paid in cash to avoid any records ― with no insurance benefits. Oftentimes, she has to drive long distances to get to each building she cleans. That workload may be on the lighter end: She’s heard of other workers who have been asked to clean 15 to 20 buildings in one night.

“It’s scary when you know you could be cleaning a building that’s been exposed to the virus,” she said. “I ask a lot of questions, but they don’t really want me to ask questions. A lot of times they won’t even tell you [if the building has been exposed to the virus], they just want you to come in, sanitize and leave as quickly as you can.”

Even though she works around the clock seven days a week, Dominguez said she’s still not making enough money to provide for her family and survive through this crisis. She only gets paid once a month, forcing her to choose between paying rent, paying bills, saving as much as she can or buying food for her family. 

She wants others to understand that workers like her are people and need help. 

“We are human beings,” she said. “We have children. We have husbands and wives. We’re no different than you. And we deserve to have the same protections as everyone else.”

UPDATE: April 6 ― After the publication of this article, the nonprofit at which Dominguez works part-time extended an offer of employment to her husband. They have also now made it possible for her to work remotely. (The article above has also been amended to clarify that Dominguez’s part-time position at the nonprofit does provide paid-time off and sick leave.)


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