Immigrant Domestic Employees Slip Through Relief Cracks in U.S.
(Bloomberg) -- As the U.S. economy recovers and labor-market conditions improve, one category of workers still has a ways to go: domestic employees.
The resurgence of Covid-19 and the prospect of remote work in the longer run has brought further hardship on a segment of the labor force -- predominantly women of color -- that was poorly paid and little protected even before the pandemic hit.
“There are many dimensions of exclusion, which contribute to the fact that they have low earnings and can’t work their way out of poverty,” said Martha Chen, a public policy-lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. “What doesn’t fit very easily for domestic workers is the enforcement of labor regulations, because the workplace is a private home.”
More than one in three domestic workers are immigrants, and hundreds of thousands of undocumented maids and housekeepers are likely undercounted. The informality and lack of regulation is what attract many to the job. Stripped of bargaining power, foreign-born domestic employees are estimated to make almost $2 less per hour than their American counterparts. Now the coronavirus crisis has left many with even lower income, if at all.
The care economy has been among the fastest-growing segments of the labor market as the population ages and home health aides enable the elderly to stay in their homes longer.
To help protect the profession, Democrats in the Senate re-introduced last month the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. First presented by then-Senator Kamala Harris in 2019, the bill would ensure paid sick leave as well as meal and rest breaks for homecare employees, on top of extending civil-rights protections to this category. Ten states, including New York, already have bills of rights for domestic workers.
For the undocumented, the situation is worse, because they typically have no access to government aid when they lose their job. The state of New York started a $2.1 billion fund this month for workers excluded from unemployment benefits, including undocumented immigrants. Domestic employees are expected to make up a large share of applicants.
For years, Gilda Blanco was among these undocumented immigrants. In 2008, she traded her native Guatemala for upstate New York to make $1.25 per hour as a live-in house-cleaner. Her 18-hour shifts often included episodes of racism, as well as verbal and sexual harassment, she said. One time, an employer wouldn’t let her start cleaning before putting on a maid costume.
Blanco, who barely spoke English at the time, said she normalized these degrading experiences. “I didn’t know the definition of domestic worker,” she said. “I didn’t know the definition of immigrant.”
She eventually moved to Seattle, which has one of the most comprehensive pro-domestic worker laws in the country. She is now a full-time advocate for the rights of immigrant cleaners, and sits on the board of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy group.
In June, she met with Vice President Harris in Washington with other immigrant women to discuss the hardships they face.
Blanco, now a green-card holder, said that while she was able to turn her life around, thousands of her “sisters” are still battling to make ends meet.
“Work as a domestic worker is like any work, we contribute to the economy,” Blanco said. “We are people, we deserve to have a better life, better work conditions, a salary.”
As of last month, 29% of Spanish-speaking domestic workers in a survey by the NDWA were still out of work. Among those who had a job, almost 90% said they worked fewer hours than normal, according to the survey.
Luiza Rodrigues was able to get her old jobs back -- and more.
When the lockdowns left her without work last year, Rodrigues wasn’t able to get relief. She said she was lucky that some of her clients continued to pay for previously scheduled services -- the only safety net she had.
As restrictions began going away last summer, some of her customers returned, while new ones began requesting her services. Rodrigues, who moved to Maryland from Brazil in 2011, was cleaning around 15 houses a week before the pandemic hit, getting help from two other immigrant cleaners.
Now she’s working more hours and charging higher rates.
“People are realizing the importance of keeping everything clean,” Rodrigues said.
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