Domestic workers — most of whom are women of color and immigrants — have been especially hard hit by the novel coronavirus and related economic impacts, say advocacy groups such as the U.S.-based National Domestic Workers Alliance.
These workers, including nannies, house cleaners, and home carers for seniors and people with disabilities, were often the first to lose their income as families sheltered in place, needed fewer services, and grew wary of others entering their homes.
Domestic workers were also the last to receive financial assistance from the federal government, and many have yet to receive any aid at all, says Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the Alliance. "As everyone has been sheltering in place, domestic workers have lost the limited income they had and have been struggling to figure out how to put food on the table, pay for essential supplies and bills, and care for their own families," she said during a press briefing last month.
For the briefing, the Alliance invited domestic workers from across the U.S. to speak about their work and home lives as states begin to reopen. They described economic hardship, fear for their clients and their families, and frustration that state and federal governments aren't listening.
Domestic workers share their stories: "My anxiety is through the roof."
Those who shared their stories include Savvy Moore, a mother of three who has worked for more than 20 years as a home care worker and certified nursing assistant (CNA) in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a two-time cancer survivor, Moore is immunocompromised, but she could not afford to stop working when the pandemic struck.
Her daughter, who is also a CNA and is five months pregnant, is in the same situation. Moore says her daughter often cries when it's time to go to work, out of fear for her health and that of her unborn child, but without any savings or paid sick leave, she has no choice but to remain on the job. "We are at high risk, and it's almost like no one's hearing us," Moore told reporters. "We’re told, ‘Come to work, or lose your job.’ That's not right. That's no way to treat frontline workers."
Though they continued to work during the pandemic, Moore and her daughter saw their hours cut. "Our incomes have gone down significantly," Moore said. "I have debt collectors calling me all the time, threatening me as if they don't understand what's going on. My anxiety is through the roof."
Linda Walton, a CNA from Atlanta, Georgia, who cares for a man with a spinal injury through a domestic employment agency, is also worried for herself and her clients.
"Since Atlanta has reopened, it has been really stressful," Walton said. "I hear from our governor that things are getting better, but that does not match up with our reality. Our positive cases have almost doubled since the state has reopened."
Walton said she does not have health insurance or paid sick leave through her agency, nor does she receive hazard pay. It's up to her clients to provide protective and sanitary equipment, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. "As a frontline worker performing an essential job and as a woman of color, I feel like I'm more at risk for contracting the virus," she said. "I am also concerned for the health of my clients, because they are medically fragile and have preexisting health conditions."
Her story is similar to that of Susie Rivera, a 63-year-old home care worker from New Braunfels, Texas, who said she does not have adequate protective equipment to ensure she, her clients and her family of five can stay safe.
"All the years that I've done this kind of work, I have never, ever, ever dreamt of having to work the way we have to work right now," Rivera said. "All we need is the equipment we should have to take care of the elderly we care for and make sure they're safe," she continued. "We need protective equipment to keep them alive."
The next federal stimulus is at a standstill in the Senate, leaving workers in limbo
"While the majority of states are now open or partially open, we are still in the middle of both a public health and economic crisis, and we need clear and concrete guidance from all levels of government so that everyone can be safe," said Poo of the Alliance. "Domestic workers should have protective gear. They should have hazard pay and clear, explicit agreements."
But response from government, specifically the White House and U.S. Senate, has so far been lacking.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed their version of the next coronavirus stimulus package on May 15. The $3 trillion proposal includes some elements of the so-called Essential Workers Bill of Rights introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in April — including hazard pay, protective equipment, and healthcare and economic protections for essential workers regardless of immigration status. This is a significant departure from the last stimulus package, which barred families from receiving aid if anyone in their household did not have a Social Security number.
Senate Republicans, however, lambasted the idea of providing aid to immigrants without legal status. They also took issue with other provisions including mortgage relief, rental assistance and student loan forgiveness — which they claim are unrelated to the coronavirus — calling the House bill "dead on arrival."
More than four weeks later, the Senate has yet to schedule a vote on the House stimulus package or reveal their own version.
Advocates aren't waiting for government to act
Despite Senate opposition to the House bill, research indicates this type of legislation has broad support among the U.S. public. Nearly 70 percent of Americans agree "we need a major reform of the country’s response to the pandemic" and say the government should be "doing more to solve problems and help," according to a May survey conducted by Caring Across Generations and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
"Working families still need economic support, access to testing and treatment, family care, and stronger health and safety standards in workplaces," said Haeyoung Yoon, senior director of policy at the Alliance. "We need the Senate to act swiftly to pass [the stimulus bill]."
But the Alliance isn't waiting for the federal government to act. In response to what they call a refusal of the White House and Senate to provide more aid for working families impacted by the coronavirus, Poo, Yoon and their colleagues put together their own set of guidelines for domestic workers returning to the job as states reopen.
One set of guidelines, created for domestic workers, includes advice and training resources to stay safe on the job, as well as places to turn for emotional and financial support. Another provides guidance for families who employ domestic workers, including how to ensure collective safety and how to come to fair agreements regarding pay and time off.
"There are very real power dynamics at play here. We really urge families and employers to bear in mind the incredible pressures on workers to have an income to care for their own families," Poo said. Still, "nothing could replace the impact of clear action and leadership at the national level," she said, and the Alliance and its allies continue to push for passage of a second round of federal stimulus.
"We should not have to be sacrificing our lives just to get through this crisis," said Moore, the CNA from Charlotte. "Take care of us because we take care of you. We do this work from our hearts."
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.