Econopocalypse: Immigrant Housecleaners in Freefall

Since losing four of her seven cleaning jobs this year, housekeeper Veronica Nieto has started looking through trash -- plucking out recyclable cans and bottles for cash to make the rent. The mother of three rarely shops for groceries anymore. Instead, she visits three food banks for staples such as rice, beans, and onions. She stopped her cable service.

“When I think about this situation, my back hurts, my head hurts,” said Nieto, 36, one of thousands of domestic workers, who said that since the economy tanked, her life has been in a freefall. “I never thought this would happen to me.”

She isn’t alone. A record 5.84 million people now are collecting unemployment benefits, an unprecedented figure amid the worst economic crisis to hit the United States since the Depression.

But Nieto, a San Francisco resident of nine years and other domestic workers who clean homes for a living, are not included in this staggering figure. An undocumented immigrant, Nieto has toiled in the shadows of the underground economy, performing the backbreaking work of scrubbing toilets and floors. She reckons she will have to suffer the consequences of unemployment in the dark, as well.

“What can I do?” she asked.

Her husband, also undocumented and an unemployed construction laborer, is worse off. Depressed, he sits at home and watches TV, described Nieto, who is more concerned about her husband’s despondent condition than her own predicament.

“I have never seen him like this,” said Nieto, her eyes tearing up. “He has always been the one who sustained the household. He said if we continue like this, we’re going to have to leave for Mexico.”

Layoffs of housecleaners have skyrocketed in recent months. As professionals continue to lose their jobs and tighten their household budgets, maids are the first ones to be let go, said Altagracia Garcia, an organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

“It’s been a domino effect,” Garcia said. “Household workers are disposable right now.”

From New York to San Francisco, the complaints that there are no jobs have been coming in from this often silent and invisible workforce – estimated in the hundreds of thousands in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago alone. Cleaning homes is one of the most lucrative jobs for an immigrant woman with limited English-speaking skills, said Andrea Cristina Mercado, the lead organizer of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a grassroots Latina organization in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Even before the recession hit, housecleaners endured some of the lowest wages in the country. Now, some say they are working for almost nothing.

Among the half-dozen women interviewed, many say they are scrambling to avoid evictions, with some moving in with friends and others squatting in foreclosed homes. Many women say they are selling homemade tamales and other handicrafts on the street to make ends meet and relying on their families and churches for donated clothes, emergency cash and food.

Jill Shenker, lead organizer at the San Francisco Day Labor Program Women's Collective of La Raza Centro Legal, said many women have stopped complaining about workplace abuses altogether because they now fear losing the few jobs that are out there.

“One woman is getting paid $70 for 10 hours of work -- a clear violation of minimum wage,” Shenker said. “But people are now willing to take those jobs because the recession has made a bad situation worse.”

Silvia Medina, 38, who lives in Brooklyn, is one of the housekeepers who managed to escape unemployment by working more hours for less pay. She used to earn $120 for doing the laundry, ironing, and cleaning for a family of seven twice a week. Now that same household pays her $70, she said. And she accepts it.

“This work is so undervalued,” said Medina, a single mom of two. “But I know about the soup kitchens in the churches that give out free food. I go to those places now to complete my meals.”

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