Domestic Workers Still Struggling, Many Jobless Months Into Pandemic

Over one-third of house cleaners still had no work as of September, per a nationwide survey — four times the rate of reported joblessness before COVID-19.

House cleaners, nannies and home care workers across the country continue to face dramatic economic losses months into the coronavirus pandemic, with no relief in sight.

A survey of over 20,000 Spanish-speaking domestic workers in the U.S. by National Domestic Workers Alliance found that more than a third (or 36%) were jobless in mid-September — four times the rate before the pandemic hit (around 9%). At one point in the early months of COVID-19’s spread in the spring, when there were widespread shutterings of businesses and shelter-in-place policies, a peak of 68% of domestic workers reported being without any jobs.

The domestic workers advocacy group NDWA used a chatbot to survey thousands of workers weekly for the first six months of the pandemic, from mid-March to mid-September, reaching largely house cleaners, as well as nannies and home care workers in 48 states and Puerto Rico.

More than half of those surveyed reported being unable to pay rent or their mortgage for six months in a row. More than three-quarters reported being unsure they’d be able to afford food in the coming weeks.

“My employers canceled because of the virus,” Rosa, a house cleaner in New York, said in the group’s report. The single mother, who has a 13-year-old daughter, said she’d gotten no government support. “I am very worried. The amount of debt for rent goes up.”

Coronavirus cases continue to mount across the country, recently reaching a peak of 83,000 new daily cases. The economic effects have been devastating, as the nation’s unemployment rate was at nearly 8% last month, more than twice the pre-pandemic rate.

Congress has yet to pass a new stimulus package — and it remains to be seen if a future one would include undocumented workers, who were left out of the first round of stimulus checks. Less than a third of the domestic workers surveyed had received the $1,200 check.

House cleaners and nannies don’t have the option to work from home — and they also generally don’t have access to employer-provided health care or paid sick leave. And as domestic workers often work for multiple employers for short amounts of time and may be paid in cash, it can be challenging for them to prove earnings to qualify for unemployment benefits.

The survey highlights Spanish-speaking workers, a group that’s often left out of economic data due to language barriers, immigration status and/or because they were paid off the books.

More than 85% of Spanish-speaking domestic workers did not apply for unemployment in large part because they didn’t believe they qualified for relief, according to NDWA’s report. Only 14% of them applied for aid, and of that percentage, 57% still did not receive unemployment benefits after applying.

“As domestic workers, we deserve to be cared for by this country because we take care of your children, your elderly and your homes,” Rufina Rodriguez, a house cleaner from Philadelphia, said on Tuesday. “We deserve help from the government and we deserve to have all the labor rights so that we can work safely during the pandemic and after the pandemic.”

As domestic workers experienced “rapid and sustained loss of income” during the pandemic, as NDWA put it, about three-quarters of those surveyed were primary breadwinners in their households.

As the pandemic spread in the spring, many areas were under shelter-in-place orders and domestic workers saw their regular clients abruptly cancel their jobs. Per the survey, nearly three-quarters of workers did not receive any compensation when their jobs were canceled, and nearly half of those who lost work were never contacted again by their employers.

“As domestic workers we deserve to be cared for by this country because we take care of your children, your elderly and your homes.”

- Rufina Rodriguez, a house cleaner from Philadelphia

What’s more, as schools have taken a piecemeal approach to returning to in-person classes or conducting them virtually, working parents are struggling. Nearly 90% of the domestic workers surveyed identified as mothers, and more than a quarter of these said they lacked a device for their child’s remote learning.

Meanwhile, the nature of domestic work means that when they do get jobs, they need to go into other people’s homes, including being in high contact with others in the cases of nannies or home care workers. As over 8.6 million people have had confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. and over 225,000 people have died so far, those infected and dead have disproportionately been Black and Latinx.

Over 90% of domestic workers in the U.S. are women and more than half of them are women of color and 46% immigrants, according to a 2012 national study of domestic workers.

A June survey by NDWA of 800 Black immigrant domestic workers in three regions — Massachusetts, New York City and Miami — echoed similar struggles: 70% had either lost their jobs or had their hours or pay cut since COVID-19 hit. What’s more, 25% of the domestic workers surveyed had experienced or lived with someone with COVID-19 symptoms.

The survey comes just a day after the Senate adjourned following the rushed confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. With millions of Americans in dire need of government assistance, the chamber will break until after Election Day and Congress won’t be able to enact a new COVID-19 relief bill before Nov. 3, and possibly not until 2021.

More coronavirus relief aid likely hinges on who wins the presidential election. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden says he will immediately start working on COVID-19 relief if elected, while the Trump administration published a report on Tuesday listing first-term accomplishments including “ending the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“As we head into the most important election in generations, this reality is a huge part of what’s at stake,” NDWA executive director Ai-jen Poo said. “Domestic workers’ lives and livelihoods are on the line and they will be heard as they mobilize to vote this year. And you should all remember them and the human cost of this pandemic to their families and communities as we all plan to vote this year.”


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