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Covid job losses devastate domestic workers, who are largely unseen

“For domestic workers, this pandemic has been an economic crisis," said Marrisa Senteno of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, as well as "a health and safety disaster."

Judith Bautista found out she was out of a job in June when a moving truck pulled into the home of the family she worked for during the past eight years.

“They tell me they buy a mansion in another state,” Bautista said, “and from one day to another one, they say ‘that's it, you don't have a job.'"

Bautista, 36, the family's nanny, has been a domestic worker in New York City ever since she immigrated from Puebla, Mexico, at the age of 17. She specializes in caring for children and teens with special needs.

Like many other domestic workers, her job came to an end when her employer decided to move out of the city due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bautista said she cared for the family's son like he was her own, watching him grow from a child to a teenager.

“You put your heart in the job,” she said. “I still miss him.”

But her worry now is how she will provide for her own son, Jian, who is 10.

“I used all my savings to support my family because I am a single mother,” she said. “So, it's very hard. Last month, I pay my rent and I say, ‘what's going to be next?’ The next month, how am I going to pay my rent?”

Judith Bautista, who worked as a nanny for a New York City family for the last 8 years, lost her job when the family moved after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Judith Bautista, who worked as a nanny for a New York City family for the last 8 years, lost her job when the family moved after the Covid-19 pandemic.Arleen Aguasvivas / NBC News

There are more than 200,000 domestic workers in New York City, including nannies, home care aides and cleaning crews. The National Domestic Workers Alliance estimates that close to 80 percent of them have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“For domestic workers, this pandemic has been an economic crisis, a health and safety disaster, and one that also exacerbates the structures of racism and gender inequalities that they face every day,” Marrisa Senteno, the co-director of the non-profit's New York chapter, said.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, domestic workers in the United States are largely women (91.5 percent) and Black, Hispanic, or Asian American/Pacific Islander (52.4 percent).

Many domestic workers' unemployment numbers don't show up in official statistics because employers don't report them as employees or misclassify them as independent contractors.

“That puts a further strain on the base of benefits that domestic workers are supposed to be eligible for but do not have access to,” Senteno said. “The fallout was disastrous during this pandemic, as so many domestic workers who would have been eligible for unemployment were in fact not able to take advantage of that benefit.”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance started a care fund for domestic workers like Judith who are struggling financially as a result of the pandemic. Since March, the organization said it has helped more than 40,000 nannies, house cleaners and home care workers across the country.

The situation is even tougher for domestic workers who don't have legal immigration status.

“As undocumented workers, we didn’t get anything — and it’s not just me, there are many of us, undocumented domestic workers, who didn’t get any help," Brenda, an undocumented caregiver who has been out of work since being laid off in March, said.

Safety concerns

Domestic workers who still have a job face the issue of safety amid the ongoing pandemic.

Brooklyn-based Denise Frederick, 39, said she has taken it upon herself to buy protective equipment and get tested for Covid-19 regularly.

“Finally home. Finally able to take off this mask. It was a long day,” she said, moments after walking through her front door and removing her leopard-print face mask on a Monday evening.

Frederick is a home attendant in the mornings and a nanny in the afternoons.

Working hard during the pandemic is something she knows not to take for granted. “My daughter is in community college right now, and I mean, I never had the opportunity of going to college myself, so I just figured I needed to do whatever I had to do.”

But going into other people's homes every day, Frederick worries about her and her daughter’s health.

"If I get sick, then that means I don't get paid because I'm not able to go to work.”

Domestic workers are not protected under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which sets standards intended to help assure safe and healthful working conditions for workers.

In a win for the National Domestic Workers Alliance this year, New York City law now requires employers to give their domestic workers 5 days of paid sick leave each year.

The city offers more protections than most major cities and states. In fact, New York was the first state to pass a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights a decade ago. The bill gives domestic workers protections like the right to overtime pay and a day of rest every seven days.

But the National Domestic Workers Alliance says there's still a lot of work to be done.

“While [New York] is one of the most progressive cities in the country, it has not yet extended human rights protections to domestic workers,” Senteno said.

The group is pushing for Int. 339, a bill that, if passed, would amend the New York City Human Rights Law to include individuals who employ domestic workers. This would provide domestic workers in the city protections against discrimination in the workplace and coverage under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

“Some people think this is not a real job because we go into people’s homes. But it is,” Frederick, who is part of the alliance, said. “Some of us get paid on the books. Some of get paid cash. But domestic work is real.”

No matter how long the pandemic lasts, Frederick said, she will be working as many jobs in as many homes as necessary to support her family.

“Domestic workers are the ones running Wall Street. Domestic workers are the ones being able to go into those family homes and allowing those doctors, those lawyers, those teachers to go to work and take care of other people,” she said. “So technically, we run it. Domestic workers run it. We are essential.”

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