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Who Cares for Care Workers During the Pandemic?

This pandemic exposes the urgent need for a major transformation in how we think about and support care workers.

Personal care assistant Maria Colville leaves for work from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to care for an elderly woman in Watertown on March 26, 2020.

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Lee Plaza, 60, is a caregiver for a 90-year-old woman in Los Angeles. She works 12 hours per day, six days per week helping her client shower, groom, eat and perform other basic day to day functions.

Needless to say, Plaza cannot perform this job remotely.

“I take a bus to and from work, which is risky in terms of spreading germs, but I cannot afford to take Uber,” Plaza told Truthout. “I worry about getting my client sick, or vice versa, but if I don’t work, I will not get paid.”

The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought economic class lines into even sharper relief. Many domestic workers like Plaza — nannies, housekeepers and caregivers — are facing the difficult choice of either losing income and risking serious financial hardship, or showing up to work in conditions that put them at risk of exposure to, or transmission of, COVID-19. Critically, both Plaza and her client are in the highest risk age group for coronavirus fatality.

Plaza formerly had private health insurance, but she can no longer afford it. “I care for the elderly because I consider this a noble profession, and not everyone can be a caregiver,” Plaza told Truthout. “But if I get sick, I don’t know how I will pay my bills or care for my own family.”

Parents and other caregivers are also being thrown into unexpected situations, now having to care for children or family during the daytime while also trying to work.

“Domestic workers often work paycheck to paycheck. They don’t have savings to stock up on food,” Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), told Truthout. “Losing wages means losing food for their families.”

Domestic workers and advocates are urgently organizing a response to the coronavirus pandemic, while still foregrounding the movement for long-term economic security and dignity.

There are approximately 2.5 million domestic workers working in the United States, 300,000 of whom, like Plaza, are in California. The vast majority of domestic workers are women, and many are immigrants and women of color. As of 2017, the mean hourly wage for domestic workers is less than $12 per hour. According to NDWA research, many do not have access to paid sick days, paid family leave or affordable medical care.

The Trump administration’s COVID-19 stimulus package, enacted on March 26, provides cash assistance to eligible workers, including self-employed workers. A separate law, the Families First policy enacted March 18, extends paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave to some workers, including self-employed workers.

These are positive developments, but advocates fear domestic workers still fall through the cracks. Many domestic workers are also immigrants who may not feel safe providing their information to the federal government to access these benefits, as many may be undocumented or have undocumented family members. In addition, these benefits could count as income, disqualifying workers from other public benefits. Finally, this policy is short-term relief due to the pandemic, set to expire by December 31, 2020.

“Our leaders need to prioritize a response for those most vulnerable, including domestic workers,” Julie Kashen, senior policy adviser for NDWA, told Truthout. “We need a combination of temporary relief and long-term structural change.”

Although NDWA affiliates have worked over the last decade to enact domestic workers’ bills of rights in nine states throughout the country as well as the city of Seattle, most of these bills of rights have only secured minimum wage eligibility and overtime protections. Paid sick leave, paid family leave and stronger health insurance for domestic workers are still gaps in most jurisdictions.

And while these new local laws are groundbreaking, they are just beginning to scratch the surface. Exclusion of domestic workers from basic standards and protections runs deep throughout U.S. history. Major labor legislation of the New Deal era — including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a minimum wage, and the National Labor Relations Act, which protected collective bargaining activity — did not protect domestic workers.

The lack of a safety net for domestic workers during the coronavirus pandemic prompted the National Domestic Workers Alliance to set up a Coronavirus Care Fund “to slow the spread of the virus by providing emergency assistance for domestic workers that enables them to stay home and healthy.” Through this fund, domestic workers who are also active in NDWA’s work can receive up to $400 in emergency assistance.

Assistance like this is critical for women like Socorro Diaz. Diaz, 39, is an immigrant from Mexico and has worked as a house cleaner in Sonoma County, California, for 17 years. She has earned up to $700 per week when she has a full schedule of house cleaning jobs, but all of her clients since March 11 have canceled their appointments, resulting in total loss of income.

Diaz supports her two children and her elderly parents, who still live in Mexico. If work does not pick up soon, Diaz worries most about losing her housing.

“I’m worried about how long this is going to last,” Diaz told Truthout. “I have to pay my bills, but I have no money coming in.”

At the same time, Diaz is sympathetic to her clients who worry about becoming ill — and she also worries that in order to work, she cannot engage in effective social distancing.

“I understand that my clients don’t want me to come to their homes because they are worried about being in contact with another human being and spreading the disease. I am worried about the same thing,” Diaz said.

Many domestic workers like Diaz are simultaneously surrounded — by the people for whom they are cleaning or providing care, and those people’s illnesses — yet isolated, without a human resources department or union they can turn to for solutions.

Despite the current crisis, worker advocates have not lost sight of their overarching policy goals. The federal domestic workers’ bill of rights, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in July 2019, would help ensure that all domestic workers throughout the country receive a range of protections, including seven paid sick days per year.

Local and state activism also persists. Domestic workers in California are fighting for state legislation that would strengthen occupational safety protections. Senate Bill 1257 would remove the exclusion of domestic workers from California’s occupational safety policy. Diaz has been active in her local worker center, Centro Laboral de Graton, in advocating for this legislation.

Beyond federal and state policy advocacy, NDWA is organizing its affiliates throughout the country to reach voters this year, to educate voters on these crucial economic justice issues. Worker advocates have been holding phone banks to talk to voters, and they plan to continue these efforts throughout the year.

“While we are focused right now on ensuring that women have information they need in order to weather and survive this moment of crisis, we continue to talk to voters every day,” Poo told Truthout.

In addition to policy advocacy and civic engagement, the domestic workers’ movement has for many years been organizing the employers of domestic workers. Hand in Hand, the Domestic Employers Network, was founded in 2010 and seeks to engage employers of domestic workers in the movement to support labor protections for domestic workers.

“We’ve been asking the broader domestic employer community, whose incomes have not been impacted by the crisis, to continue to pay workers even if they are unable to come to the employer’s home,” Stacy Kono, network director of Hand in Hand, told Truthout.

Hand in Hand issued a pledge on March 26 urging employers to continue paying their workers. Thus far, more than 300 employers from 26 states have signed the pledge.

“Now more than ever, it is critical to let our housekeeper know that her job is secure … that she should not come to work until it is safe again, and that we will still pay her,” said Margie Scharf from Merion, Pennsylvania, an employer who signed the pledge.

Hand in Hand also published a piece on March 24 about how employers of domestic workers can respond to shelter-in-place policies, and earlier in March, the organization published guidance to employers about how best to support their family needs and their domestic worker.

This wide range of strategies — policy, civic engagement and direct sectoral influence — aims to resolve historic exclusion of domestic workers that leaves them invisible and without a safety net.

“The coronavirus exposes the ways in which the current care economy fails both domestic workers and those who depend upon them. It calls for a major transformation of the way we think about domestic work and domestic employment, so that everyone gets the support they need and can live with dignity and safety,” Kono said.

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