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Domestic Workers, the Unforgotten Casualty of This Pandemic

Words by Leon Kaye
Domestic Workers

The roster of workers who are highly vulnerable to the ravages of the novel coronavirus pandemic is a long one, including retail employees, drivers working for public transit systems, farmworkers, meatpacking company employees, first responders and, of course, those on the front lines in hospitals. As they face more threats from hunger to eviction, domestic workers have largely been in the shadows as the work available to them has for the most part dried up.

We can shake our virtual fists at fast-food companies, grocery chains and online delivery services on social media. We can tout our own companies’ contributions in corporate blog posts or on these firms’ media relations pages. But for those of us who focus on social responsibility and corporate sustainability, no mechanism exists that forces us to ensure domestic workers are taken care of during this crisis.

One comment on a recent webinar sums up this problem succinctly. To paraphrase: Those who are saving money on daily expenses, such as cleaning bills, by working from home might consider passing these savings along to a charitable organization or small business, a webcast panelist said. 

Here's our response: While we appreciate the sentiment of cutting a check for a nonprofit or ordering from a local business, if you know your job is secure, and you have had the means to hire domestic help, here’s a simple question. Why not continue to pay that person, even if she — face it, more than 90 percent of domestic workers go by “she” — is not able to clean your house or watch the children, as they did daily, weekly or twice a month as she could before?

Enter the lone voice for domestic workers

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is largely a lone voice doing what it can to shine light on the tragedy now confronting domestic workers. This coalition has tasked itself by doing what it can to slow the spread of COVID-19 by providing emergency assistance for domestic workers (as in house cleaners and childcare workers) during this crisis.

The alliance’s numbers starkly illustrate what these citizens now face. About three-quarters of domestic workers are making a living that had subjected them under the U.S. poverty line. Their median wage is just over $10 an hour, and almost half of these workers are paid an hourly wage that is below the minimum level necessary to support their families.

Furthermore, domestic workers aren’t in a position to make the decisions necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 on their terms. According to the alliance’s survey, 94 percent of these workers reported that any cancellations were made by their clients, not by them. And 70 percent say they have no idea if they will return to those clients’ homes once this pandemic subsides.

Without any social safety, these workers on society’s margins are at huge risk

The rest of this story should be obvious: The vast majority of domestic workers are unable to pay the rent and buy food this month, and because of the nature of their work, many will not qualify for any benefits under the U.S. federal government’s coronavirus relief package.

Hence domestic workers were clearly among those citizens on Pope Francis’s mind when he suggested earlier this week that governments consider a universal basic income in order to support those who have been the hardest hit by this crisis. The National Domestic Workers Alliance’s executive director, Ai-jen Poo, echoed that sentiment in a recent public statement emailed to TriplePundit.

“All of us deserve to feel safe and secure in our lives and work. But for millions of working people, especially people like domestic workers who have lived and worked in the shadows, a lost paycheck could mean losing a roof over their heads or being unable to put food on the table for the families,” said Ms. Poo. “This crisis has heightened that reality and brought it into sharp relief. The inherent value of all work and all of humanity has been revealed through the crisis. Right now, we must respond by urgently providing assistance to all who need it. There is no other greater human imperative.”

Until a universal basic income becomes a reality, or when these essential workers also qualify for the same benefits as the rest of us do, it’s now up to us to speak up for domestic workers, who don’t belong to any “stakeholder group” about which many of us in this space discuss.

In the meantime, this video the National Domestic Workers Alliance released yesterday makes it clear what we can do right now. America’s companies, large and small, could help on this front to start by finding a way to send a gentle reminder to their employees: Be sure to take care of those who are closest to you.

Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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