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'Full-blown depression': Most Latina domestic workers grapple with housing, food insecurity

About half of workers who lost their jobs were not contacted by employers, and three-quarters didn't receive compensation.

Rufina Rodríguez used to clean about a dozen houses every week before the coronavirus pandemic hit Philadelphia, where she has lived for 18 years.

"But when the quarantine started in March, I had no jobs," Rodríguez, 42, said in Spanish. "I couldn't find a job until after June 4, and it was only to clean three or four houses."

Rodríguez is among more than 20,000 Spanish-speaking domestic workers, many of them mothers who are breadwinners in their households, who reported rapid and sustained losses of jobs and income due to the pandemic, resulting in housing and food insecurity over the past six months, according to a new survey the National Domestic Workers Alliance released Tuesday.

Rodríguez's husband, who is a restaurant worker, also lost income after his hours were reduced as a result of coronavirus-related restrictions. And she has also become a stay-at-home teacher for her 10-year-old son, who is learning remotely.

Image: Rufina Rodriguez
Rufina Rodriguez.Courtesy National Domestic Workers Alliance

"We did what we could to pay our expenses, but on top of this I was also concerned for my son's safety, and I was afraid to send him to school," Rodríguez said. "My family, for example, does not qualify for the government stimulus check, because we are a mixed immigration status family. So we did not get any of the help that many other families had during this difficult time."

Less than a third of domestic workers reported receiving the $1,200 stimulus checks from the CARES Act, according to the survey.

"It has affected me and impacted me in many ways, economically and emotionally," Rodríguez said, adding that she has been struggling with depression. "These past six months have been hard."

Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said in a media briefing Tuesday that Rodríguez's experiences echo those of nearly 2.5 million nannies, house cleaners and home care workers "providing caregiving and cleaning services that are essential."

By late March, over 90 percent of domestic workers had lost their jobs because of the coronavirus. While some workers have slowly recovered some jobs, 36 percent of the workers surveyed still had no jobs, according to the survey.

The survey found that about half of the workers who lost their jobs were not contacted by their employers after the cancellations and that nearly three-quarters said they did not receive any compensation when their jobs were canceled.

As a result, domestic workers are earning lower average hourly wages than before the pandemic. Before the coronavirus, 25 percent of workers earned up to $300 in their best weeks, the survey found. Now, about 78 percent of those workers are making nothing to $300.

"So it is now a full-blown depression for domestic workers as they continue to experience housing and food insecurity and struggles with child care and dangerous work environments," Poo said.

According to the survey, more than half of workers were unable to pay their rent or mortgages for six consecutive months. Last month, when asked whether they felt confident in their ability to afford food for the next two weeks, 64 percent of the domestic workers surveyed said, "I don't know."

Against that backdrop, Amalia Hernández said many caregivers like herself have had to buy their own personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, "due to lack of government help."

Hernández, 57, used to care for elders full time, but she has been working part time since the pandemic hit. She said the fear of Covid-19 exposure has taken a big mental health toll on her and some of the other caregivers she works with at a domestic workers cooperative in New Mexico, where she has lived for over 35 years.

Image: Amalia Hernandez
Amalia Hernandez.Courtesy National Domestic Workers Alliance

"Me being a diabetic, I may not survive the illness. I'm always very afraid," Hernández said, adding that many of her colleagues who have felt sick during the pandemic often struggle with doing the right thing, staying at home, but worry about not getting paid.

While Hernández said she has health care coverage through Medicaid, many of her family members don't, meaning that if some were to get sick with the virus, "the family will come together" with its limited resources to help pay for any treatments at a time when disproportionate numbers of Covid-19 deaths and infections are being reported among Latinos, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Half of domestic workers do not have access to medical care, the survey found. In addition, a vast majority of domestic workers did not apply for unemployment insurance, mostly because they did not believe they qualified.

"There are immediate steps that can be taken to support this workforce to have safety and fairness and relief in this difficult time," Poo said.

According to Poo, providing relief for immigrant families and protections for essential workers, including domestic workers, "in terms of occupational hazard pay, safety and health protections such as PPE," would have made "an enormous difference in terms of supporting the resilience of this workforce."

While the House approved such measures through the HEROES Act, the Senate decided not to take up the issue until the next session. "As soon as they return, they must include essential worker protections, domestic worker protections and real support and access to a safety net for this workforce," Poo said.

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