Domestic Workers Face Economic Devastation During the COVID-19 Pandemic
A survey published by the National Domestic Workers Alliance in April found that 55 percent of respondents were unable to pay April’s rent, and 84 percent were either not able to or didn’t know if they could afford food.
In 1986, Susie Rivera moved to Denver, Colorado, to take care of her grandfather, who, at 88 years old, was dying. After his death a few years later, she felt inspired by the work and became a certified caregiver, spending her days and nights taking care of people who require assistance due to old age, disease, or disabilities.
Helping families provide dignity for their loved one in difficult moments was rewarding, she said. “I see it as a calling and not a job,” Rivera told The Appeal. The job had also provided her with security for her family: her wife, who is sick, sister, grand-niece, and niece.
Earlier this year, Rivera juggled three clients and worked 110 hours per week in New Braunfels, Texas, where she now lives. Her work was cut to 40 hours after the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to minimize their contact with others as a precaution against the disease. Recently, one client allowed her to return to work as Texas eased restrictions, bumping her total hours to 80. She said she takes home $2,500 each month, nearly half of which is spent on a health insurance premium that is higher than most because of her wife’s disability.
Rivera, like the rest of the country’s 4 million domestic workers—a group predominantly made up of women who earn their living through jobs such as caregiving, nannying, and house cleaning—is struggling as a result of the pandemic. Because the work requires close contact in private spaces, coronavirus has brought devastating job losses to the domestic work industry and, in turn, a loss of economic security. In April, a survey published by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that 55 percent of respondents were unable to to pay April’s rent, and 84 percent were either not able to or didn’t know if they could afford food.
Now, workers and their advocates are calling for increased protections and payments as part of the government’s response to coronavirus. The HEROES Act, which passed in the House of Representatives in May, contains provisions that would benefit domestic workers.
“I’ve done this work a lot of years,” said Rivera. “It was always, always something that I could handle, but this has gotten to a point where I feel like I can’t handle it … I don’t feel like we are being taken care of.”
Anastancia Cuna, an African immigrant who works as a nanny in Boston, agreed. She quit her job nannying after the pandemic hit because she had recently lost health insurance after her husband switched jobs, and she feared that the family she worked for would not protect her from the disease. In her 20 years of nannying, Cuna said she has never been offered health insurance by her employer and has had to pay for it out of pocket. She has also never been given paid sick days and was worried she would not be allowed to take time off. “It was risky for me because, on the one hand, you need to work to make money, but also, I had to understand—if I got the virus and died, I wouldn’t be making money,” she said.
In addition to nannying, Cuna works as an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and said she has been rallying for increased protections for years, though those calls have largely gone unanswered. “If I was not working or taking care of the children whose parents are lawyers, professors, doctors, they would not be able to do their work,” she added. “So my work is as important as everybody else’s work, and we should have protections that other workers have.”
Among the components of the HEROES Act that would benefit Cuna and Rivera are premium pay for essential workers, an extension of pandemic unemployment insurance, and an expansion of coronavirus treatment and vaccination for uninsured people. The bill also benefits immigrant families, who make up a disproportionate number of domestic workers but were left out of the CARES Act. Under the HEROES Act, they would retroactively receive stimulus checks that they were previously denied.
Passage of the bill is crucial. Haeyoung Yoon, senior policy director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said that even as people are returning to work, approximately 50 percent of domestic workers are still unemployed.
“I think the pandemic has really reminded everyone that these domestic or other low-wage workers of color are really running our economy and powering our economy,” she said. “And keeping us safe allows us to eat, take care of our loved ones, and take care of our houses. What we need is for the Senate to pass the HEROES act so people have some relief.”
The $3 trillion bill is expected to face challenges in the Senate and has not yet been introduced for debate because of Republican opposition. In the meantime, unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act are set to expire on July 31.
Rivera says the HEROES Act does not go far enough, though, and the government should adopt the Essential Workers Bill of Rights as part of its coronavirus relief. This was introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna in April and would provide extra protections such as federally funded health insurance for 15 months, whistleblower protections, and universal paid sick leave and family and medical leave.
“They need to include us big time,” she said. “You don’t work, you don’t get paid.”