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Pandemic Creates ‘Devastating’ Job Losses for Already Vulnerable Domestic Workers

April 9, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—More than two-thirds of the nation’s 2.25 million domestic workers have lost their jobs in the coronavirus epidemic, according to a survey released April 8, by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. NDWA executive director Ai-Jen Poo called those losses “sudden and devastating.”

Ai-Jen Poo.
NDWA executive director Ai-Jen Poo.

The survey of subscribers to the organization’s La Alianza information service found that 72-percent of the more than 16,000 respondents said they had no work scheduled for this week. Slightly more than three-fourths were their household’s primary breadwinner, and 55-percent reported that they couldn’t pay their April rent.

“I was also out of food,” Melissa, a 38-year-old home health aide from South Florida, said on a phone press conference organized by NDWA and the Economic Policy Institute [EPI].

The mother of a 6-year-old boy, Melissa had been making $8 an hour—$400 a week for five 10-hour overnight shifts—taking care of a 95-year-old woman. The woman’s daughter, Melissa said, laid her off three weeks ago, out of fear she’d bring the virus into the house, letting her finish out the week.

Melissa got some food from the Miami Worker Center, but described the contents of her refrigerator as “one bottle of juice, one bottle of milk, a dozen eggs and some water.” Her rent is $800 a month, and she doesn’t have health insurance.

Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to both infection and layoffs because “they work with people,” said EPI state policy analyst Julia Wolfe.

The 2.25 million workers who clean houses and take care of children, the elderly and disabled are overwhelmingly female—more than 90-percent, according to EPI figures. More than 95-percent of the about 340,000 house cleaners and 500,000 nannies and home childcare workers are women, and more than 85-percent of the 1.4 million home health aides are. 

It’s also an overwhelmingly low-wage job. The median income is $10.21 an hour, according to EPI. That also doesn’t count that many of New York’s 199,000 home health aides—the 190,000 who work through agencies are the most of any state—make less than minimum wage because they work 24-hour shifts, but only get paid for 13 hours. That’s all thanks to the state government’s legal fiction that home health aides don’t have to work during the other 11 hours spent in the client’s home.

NDWA is trying to raise $4 million for a fund to aid laid-off domestic workers. It’s also running online classes on coronavirus protection—only 18-percent of survey respondents reported having access to masks on the job. NDWA also has a program where people can text “peer coaches” for emotional support.

The massive federal relief programs enacted last month aren’t reaching domestic workers yet, according to NDWA Policy Director Haeyoung Yoon. More than one-third are immigrants, with 20-percent non-citizens. More than half of house cleaners, mostly Latinas, aren’t citizens and an unknown number of domestic workers are undocumented.

Undocumented workers aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. The more than 3 million immigrants who pay taxes using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, as immigrants who don’t have Social Security numbers often do, won’t be able to get the $1,200-per-adult payment promised as a tax rebate, Yoon said.

The relief package also included $350 billion to aid self-employed people and small businesses, but Yoon said NDWA is still trying to figure out how domestic workers can apply. The package offers loans that can be converted into grants, but individuals won’t be able to apply until Apr. 10, she added. She called the process “unnecessarily complicated” and an “unwieldy bureaucracy.”

“So much of this workforce is treated as disposable,” said Poo. She hopes the crisis “shines a light on the importance of this work.”

“We are humans,” Melissa said. “We deserve to be taken care of like other workers.”

April 9, 2020

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