“This is a Nightmare”: Undocumented Domestic Workers Share Impact of Coronavirus

"This is a Nightmare": Undocumented Domestic Workers Share Impact of Coronavirus
Pictured: Defend DACA rally in Los Angeles, September 2017. (Molly Adams)

Ingrid is a house cleaner in Washington, D.C. and has been for 20 years. Now, from not being able to pay bills to questioning where her next meal is coming from, the COVID pandemic has completely uprooted her way of life.

Ingrid is depressed and fearful about her future. Unlike most Americans, Ingrid can’t turn to the federal government for help because she is an undocumented immigrant. 

“We have been having issues with getting jobs. We have had a lot of cancellations. There is no income. I don’t know if I’m able to pay my rent,” said Ingrid. “We have been excluded from the federal government to pay our rent. We are invisible.” 

Ingrid is not alone. Undocumented immigrants across the United States are overlooked and excluded from government-funded relief bills, like the CARES Act

On April 9, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) released the devastating results of a survey—detailing how the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic is impacting the work, economic security and health of domestic workers across the country. 

The results show that domestic workers are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus: Those surveyed reported extreme job loss and unemployment at higher rates than the general U.S. workforce, and the majority do not know when they will be able to return to their jobs.

  • 72 percent of respondents reported having no jobs beginning this week, April 6th.
  • 80 percent with a high volume of work (more than 10 jobs per week) had lost at least half of their jobs, or have no work, for the following week. 
  • 94 percent said that the coronavirus-related cancellations came from their client, and 70 percent were not certain whether or not their client would restore their work after the pandemic. 
"This is a Nightmare": Undocumented Domestic Workers Share Impact of Coronavirus
"This is a Nightmare": Undocumented Domestic Workers Share Impact of Coronavirus

The majority of respondents—77 percent—are the primary source of income for their families, and 84 percent of their households are now experiencing food shortage and housing uncertainty.  And half of surveyed domestic workers reported lack of access to medical care.

These numbers are even more troubling as before the pandemic, domestic workers were already economically vulnerable. Domestic workers have a median hourly wage of just over $10, compared to $17.55 for other workers, and 23 percent of domestic workers live under the poverty line—compared to 6 percent of other workers.

Last week, on April 2, NDWA hosted a press conference to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted undocumented nannies, house cleaners and home care workers like Ingrid—specifically in the areas of policy solutions and relief efforts to support people through the pandemic. 

In a press release before the conference, executive director of NDWA, Ai-jen Poo, said that undocumented workers are even more vulnerable to diseases since they aren’t able to social distance themselves due to the nature of their jobs.

“Millions of undocumented working people are deliberately left out of the social safety net, making them uniquely vulnerable to crises. Most do not have the option to socially distance by staying home, because they have to work to support their families. Many will put their lives on the line knowing that they will be left out of any policy solutions or relief efforts put into place by this administration,” said Poo. 

“This needs to change immediately,” she continued. “All working people, regardless of immigration status, need to be included in relief efforts. Undocumented families should not have to navigate this crisis alone. Our own health depends on the health of the person next to us, and the person next to them. We call on all levels of government to provide temporary and permanent solutions to undocumented domestic workers during this pandemic.” 

Along with Poo, Thursday’s conference included senior director of immigration policy at NDWA, Haeyoung Yoon, along with Ingrid, and another house cleaner from Miami, Rosana.

Poo began by explaining how NDWA has been working around the clock to support millions of women who work in U.S. homes everyday. Before the virus, domestic workers faced low wages and no paid sick days or family leave. Now, they also face no safety net, and a lack of both income and job security.

"This is a Nightmare": Undocumented Domestic Workers Share Impact of Coronavirus
(Fibonacci Blue)

Moreover, the desperation of the situation makes many workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. 

Domestic workers face “everything from sexual harrassment to all forms of discrimination” said Poo. “They face a series of impossible choices that no human being should face. … Picture the house cleaner who has in the span of two weeks lost the majority of her income and without savings must figure out how to buy food for her family.”

Even though immigrants pay taxes to the federal government, they are not eligible for federal funds: In order to be eligible, one must have a social security number.

“[The] immigration system has prevented millions of immigrants who have made this nation their home from adjusting their status—despite the essential role they play in our community,” said Poo.

From a policy perspective, Yoon discussed the CARES Act, signed into law on March 27. The act includes cash payments of $1200 to individuals who earn less than $75,000 per year, with an additional $500 payment for each child in the household.

While this package sounds promising, it excludes a large part of the population who are taxpayers: undocumented immigrants. 


Another issue is that undocumented immigrants don’t receive Medicaid coverage.

“Collective health and wellbeing are deeply interdependent,” said Yoon. “This virus doesn’t discriminate and our relief policies must not discriminate either.”

As Congress prepares for the fourth part of the relief package, NDWA is calling for all people to have access to free testing and treatment, plus eligibility for 10 days of emergency paid sick leave. NDWA hopes the next phase of the package includes additional cash payments, quality health care and a focus on care infrastructure. 

“People need to understand that we are also part of this community and have families and children. This process has not respected our human dignity or humanity. We are taking care of many of our communities. We do not feel supported” said Ingrid.

“We ask and request that the government pays attention to this,” she continued. “The only group that has been paying attention to us is NDWA. It is not enough. This is a nightmare to me and many of my colleagues. We have seen it as a very inconsiderate way of addressing this issue.” 

Similar to Ingrid, Rosana has been working in the house care industry for 18 years, following in the footsteps of her mom and grandmother. However, since COVID, the industry has been much more difficult, with jobs cancellations and families worried about social distancing. Rosana is unable to pay rent or utilities and has to choose between food and these basic necessities. 

“There is alot of fear for me because I am somebody that doesn’t have health insurance as an undocumented person,” said Rosana. “As a taxpayer, I pay to the system. We are looked at as numbers.”

"This is a Nightmare": Undocumented Domestic Workers Share Impact of Coronavirus
“Domestic workers are being forced to navigate this crisis alone and without a safety net,” wrote Poo. “Donations to the Coronavirus Care Fund will provide emergency assistance to nannies, house cleaners and home care workers who need help right now, giving them the stability they need to stay home and be a part of the solution to this crisis.” (NDWA)

NDWA is a national organization working towards respect, recognition and inclusion in labor protections for domestic workers, the majority of whom are immigrants and women of color. In mid-March, NDWA launched the Coronavirus Care Fund, an emergency relief fund to support 10,0000 domestic workers during the national pandemic. So far, NDWA has raised $3 million to provide this emergency assistance, and the money is starting to be made available to those all over the country who need it. 

While Poo is proud of this progress, it isn’t enough: “We need federal, state and local policy. Immigrants are a critical part of our workforce—regardless of immigration status.”

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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Ashley Lynn Priore—a social entrepreneur, writer, public servant and innovative speaker—is the founder, president and CEO of Queen's Gambit, a national nonprofit using chess as a catalyst for change. Ashley is the author of Let's Learn Chess! and is currently completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh.