California’s domestic laborers see financial well-being and health imperiled by coronavirus

The work they do is usually one of the first casualties of an economic crisis. Because they are part of the cash economy, they have no recourse to unemployment insurance. And those who are able to continue working must do so in other people’s homes - a fraught setting in the midst of a viral pandemic.

This is the plight of domestic workers, the housecleaners and nannies who help to make the world a little more livable for others, but who frequently get by themselves with little support network or safety net.

“I worry about my future because my family in Mexico depends on me,” Deysi Lopez, 29, a Santa Rosa housecleaner who regularly sends money to her parents and three siblings in Oaxaca, said through an interpreter. “I also am afraid some people will no longer contract me at work because they think I have the virus. And I am also afraid to go back to cleaning a house if there is the virus there.”

Since Sonoma County issued its stay-at-home order on March 17, these domestic workers - mostly women, mostly immigrants, some of them undocumented - have found their lives turned upside-down. In its most recent data from 2015, the California Domestic Workers Coalition estimated there were 5,300 such workers in Sonoma County.

“Their work has evaporated because the houses they clean are no longer available to be cleaned. They can’t go there,” said Susan Shaw, executive director of the North Bay Organizing Project, a grassroots organization dedicated to social and economic justice. “And many women had four or five or more houses every week. Now it’s zero. So women who are supporting their children, their families, their parents in a lot of cases, are not able to earn money. And it happened overnight.”

Few have steady employment. Paty Garibay of Santa Rosa said she had been working about four days a week cleaning houses. During the summer, her schedule tends to expand to five or six days per week. Only one client has retained her services during the outbreak, and only for part-time work in the yard.

Few eligible for benefits

A small percentage of clients are paying their domestic workers to stay home during the pandemic, recognizing the value of social distancing while making an effort to keep their helpers afloat. Lopez, for example, said three of her six regular clients are sending money without demanding she show up.

She is among the lucky ones.

With so many businesses suffering, many middle-class households simply don’t have the disposable income to pay their cleaners and babysitters. And because domestic workers almost always get compensated under the table, they are at risk of being laid off without recourse at any time.

Another local housecleaner, Maria - she asked that only her first name be used because she has not completed her citizenship paperwork - said none of her regular clients are paying her to stay home.

Hotel workers and dishwashers at least are eligible for unemployment benefits. That is not true of housekeepers, nannies, day laborers and others who work for cash. The situation is even more dire if they don’t have legal immigration status.

“Some people might think, isn’t everyone in the same boat right now? But the undocumented community has another layer of anxiety,” said Renee Saucedo, program director for ALMAS, which organizes domestic workers for the Graton Day Labor Center.

“They don’t qualify for any of the assistance we’ve seen so far, and they face the additional pressure of, ‘If I ask for help, will I be viewed as a public charge and face greater scrutiny?’ Or worse, ‘Will I be in the system, and they will track me down and I will be separated from my family?’ That’s the reality they face.”

Borrowing from friends

Economic factors have conspired to put many domestic workers in peril. Maria, 30, is a single mother in Santa Rosa with an 11-year-old son. She has made a little money preparing and selling tamales since the shelter order, but also is relying on help from family members.

Garibay’s husband was already unemployed before the virus hit. The couple and their three children, ages 9 to 18, have plenty of food, she said, but the family is putting many expenses on credit cards and working with their bank to defer bills.

Lopez borrowed money from friends and is speaking to her clients about receiving advance pay while the stay-at-home order is in place.

“I know we can extend the time to pay the rent, but I don’t want to live in a place where I don’t feel calm knowing I have not paid the rent,” she said. “I know I’m going to be inside pretty much all day.”

These workers aren’t looking for handouts. Most domestic laborers would prefer to stay on the job during the contagion. (Anyone currently in need of a housecleaner or nanny can call Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County or the Graton Day Labor Center for references.)

But that presents another dilemma. Their work, by definition, takes them into other people’s living spaces, where an unseen virus could lurk in the space they are paid to clean. To support their loved ones, they may risk exposing themselves and their family to the coronavirus.

“Every time I work, no one’s home,” said Maria, who spoke through an interpreter. Her clientele list has gone from seven or eight houses per week to one or two. “I feel safe, but I’m using more protection.”

Saucedo said ALMAS’ constituents are very sophisticated as far as processing information they receive about the virus.

“In that sense, they are very advanced. The challenge, though, is they have historically faced dangerous situations knowingly, out of economic necessity,” she said. “Unfortunately, they’ve been forced to choose between their health and their families’ economic well-being. It’s a survival issue.”

Bill would address safety

Advocates are pushing legislation in Sacramento to improve working conditions for domestic laborers, who lack protections granted to other types of workers.

The California Domestic Workers Coalition hosted a video press conference on April 8 to launch SB 1257, the Health & Safety for All Workers Act. During the press conference, Socorro Diaz, a worker-activist at the labor center in Graton, talked about cleaning impacted houses in the wake of the 2017 wildfires.

Most of the homeowners had evacuated, but they expected Diaz to brave the toxic smoke and ash to do her job.

“Immediately after this work, I started to feel sick,” Diaz said on the video feed, via an interpreter. “I started having a very bad headache that lasted for weeks, and I have never suffered from headaches. My skin became extremely dry. My eyes burned. One day while cleaning, I started to feel this terrible burning and itching on my face. And soon after, I had a nosebleed, something that had never happened to me.”

Diaz’s employers did not furnish her with a mask at that time. She brought her own. Still, she wound up with respiratory problems. She visited a clinic, and the doctor told her she had the lungs of a smoker. Diaz does not smoke.

Senate Bill 1257, introduced by state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, seeks to provide domestic workers with the same protections as anyone else in the workforce. It would subject employers to inspections by Cal/OSHA and to investigations of purported violations. The bill is backed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has fought to raise work standards for housecleaners, nannies and home caregivers for more than a decade.

“Domestic workers in our county, in addition to other essential workers, are on the front lines assisting the most vulnerable in our community,” Saucedo said. “They deserve much more respect and legal protections than they currently enjoy.”

You can reach Phil Barber at

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