People are terrible -- and that's why domestic workers need added labor protections

People are terrible -- and that's why domestic workers need added labor protections
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Abby Guercioni stands for a portrait inside the Veterans Memorial Home in Vineland, N.J., May 19, 2020. Guercioni, a Munitions Systems specialist with the 177th Fighter Wing, is deployed to the home with a team of Airmen from the 177th as well as the 108th Wing, supporting staff with entry control, cleaning, food preparation, maintenance, and activities. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

Undocumented immigrant Juana, 24, from El Salvador looks from her one-room apartment on March 25, 2020 in Norwalk, Connecticut. She lost her job as a house cleaner and her husband lost his job as a painter due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic just keeps bringing out new ways people treat domestic workers terribly. At the beginning of the shutdowns, many employers unceremoniously dismissed their nannies and house cleaners and other domestic workers without notice, pay, or any indication of when or if that might change.


Now it’s been long enough to see disgusting behavior like the case reported by The New York Times where a family called their housekeeper back to clean their house without telling her that the entire family had had COVID-19. The only clue they offered was leaving the cleaner, Maria Del Carmen, some bottles of Lysol. After hours of cleaning, she found out from a neighbor.

“I was terrified,” Del Carmen told the Times. “I started crying. Then I went home, took off all of my clothing, showered, got in bed, and for the next night and the next day, I waited for the coronavirus.” She got lucky—or the mask she wore to clean an empty house protected her. But that’s the level of disregard with which too many people treat domestic workers.

Disregard, also, like the treatment a cleaner named Vicenta received from two Malibu families she had cleaned for for a decade, including through the 2018 wildfires, when she spent unpaid extra hours scrubbing ash out of their homes—and in one case off their dog—without ever even being offered a glass of water. They dropped her without pay last spring.

Domestic workers have historically lacked many basic labor protections under the law, and these days they’re an overwhelmingly immigrant workforce, including many undocumented workers. That makes them particularly vulnerable to abuses.

After an initial period of almost complete unemployment among housekeepers: “We plateaued at about 40 percent employment in our surveys of members,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “And because most of these people are undocumented, they have not received any kind of government relief. We’re talking about a full-blown humanitarian crisis, a Depression-level situation for this work force.”

Every state needs a domestic workers bill of rights, and we need one at the federal level—which Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Pramila Jayapal have introduced. Government action is the key here. But it would be awfully nice to see some basic human decency as well. Unless you’ve lost your job and are facing a financial crisis yourself, pay your cleaner! Communicate with her about your situation—this is someone in your home on a regular basis, cleaning your messes. You should be willing to have a conversation with her. If your cleaner is undocumented and faces even less of a safety net than the weak, tattered one available to documented workers, consider yourself to have even more of a responsibility to treat her with some decency and pay her through this historic crisis.

And definitely, definitely, whatever else you do, don’t call someone to come clean your house and not tell her your whole family has had COVID-19. You absolute monsters.

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