“No Relief”: The Impact of COVID-19 on Domestic Workers

A recent survey of more than 20,000 Spanish-speaking domestic workers conducted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance has revealed a rapid and sustained loss of jobs and income that’s resulted in widespread housing and food insecurity.

"No Relief": The Impact of COVID-19 on Domestic Workers
“These jobs will be a large share of the jobs for future but the lowest paid with little to no access to a safety net. We need to raise wages and offer benefits to this workforce.” (Solidarity Center / Flickr)

Before the pandemic upended the economy in March, Rufina Rodriquez, a Spanish-speaking house cleaner living in Philadelphia, was cleaning about a dozen houses a week.

During the three months of stay-at-home orders, Rodriquez had no work and, since June 4, she is only cleaning three to four homes a week—making a fraction of the income she once made. Her husband works in a restaurant and his hours have been significantly cut as well.

Amalia Hernandez, a Spanish-speaking caregiver in New Mexico, has had a similar experience: Before the pandemic, she was working full-time, supervising 20 caregivers. Now she only supervises 12 caregivers and no one is working full-time. 

Their experience is indicative of what Spanish-speaking domestic workers are experiencing across the country, according to a weekly survey of more than 20,000 Spanish-speaking domestic workers conducted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). Spanish-speaking domestic workers who responded to NDWA’s surveys experienced a rapid and sustained loss of jobs and income that resulted in housing and food insecurity, said Ai-jen Poo, NDWA executive director, during an Oct. 27 press call.

Rodriguez said that many of her colleagues have had to rely on food banks and are struggling to pay rent. While many Americans received a government stimulus check in April, Rodriquez’s family didn’t receive one because her family has a mixed immigration status.

“We deserve to be cared for because we talk care of your children, elderly and your homes,” Rodriguez said through a translator. “We deserve to have all the labor right so we can work safely during the pandemic and after the pandemic.”

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Many Domestic Workers Lack Safety Net

The Heroes Act—passed by the House in May but never voted on in the Senate—would have provided economic relief for all immigrant families and protections for domestic workers, Poo said: “These measures would have made an enormous difference.”

After the 2020 election, NDWA is hopeful that Congress will pass essential worker protections that include the 2.5 million domestic workers and provides real support and access to a safety net.

“We need an equitable economic recovery, which includes domestic workers,” she said. 

Survey results show that COVID-19 has had a deep impact on domestic workers, with 90 percent of them losing their job by the end of March, said Paulina Lopez Gonzalez, economist-in-residence at NDWA Labs, the innovation arm of NDWA. While many have been hired again, most are working significantly fewer hours much like Rodriquez and Hernandez. 

From March 13 through September 18, NDWA Labs delivered 25 weekly surveys through Alianza, a chatbot available through Facebook Messenger with more than 200,000 domestic worker subscribers. Each survey averaged 18 questions and was sent to more than 56,000 domestic workers each week. These weekly check-ins with domestic workers gave NDWA a unique view into how the rapidly changing conditions of the COVID-19 crisis were affecting our country’s most vulnerable essential workers. 

Although NDWA didn’t ask about legal status in its survey, it’s reasonable to conclude that many respondents are immigrants, Lopez Gonzalez said. Most likely many domestic workers surveyed didn’t apply for unemployment benefits because of their legal status or because they are paid in cash and not through payroll, she said.

“A significant percentage of domestic workers were unable to access the benefits that would have mitigated much of their lost wages,” she added.

Survey Finds Loss of Wages with No Economic Relief

The majority of the respondents worked as house cleaners, and more than three in four workers said they are their household’s primary income earner. Nearly nine out of 10 respondents are mothers of young children or school-age children. More than two-thirds of respondents have been employed as domestic workers for 5 years or more, and eight out of 10 rent their homes.

Here’s what they said about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their employment and earnings:

  • By late March, more than 90 percent of workers lost jobs due to COVID-19.
  • The percentage of workers without any jobs is still nearly four times the percentage before COVID-19.
  • Between two and three percent of respondents worked 31 to 40 hours per week during the pandemic—compared to more than 33 percent before COVID-19.
  • Workers at all levels of hourly work saw their hours fall during the pandemic, compared with before COVID-19.
  • Nearly three-quarters of workers did not receive any compensation when their jobs were canceled.
  • Nearly half of workers who lost work were not contacted by their employers at all after the cancellation.
  • Workers are earning lower average hourly wages than before COVID-19. 

Respondents also had a difficult time accessing economic relief:

  • The vast majority of domestic workers did not apply for unemployment insurance, mostly because they did not believe they qualified.
  • Less than a third of workers received the CARES Act $1,200 stimulus check.
  • More than half of workers do not know if they have a food bank nearby.
  • More than a quarter of workers lack a device for their children’s remote learning. Half of workers do not have access to medical care.
  • For six consecutive months, more than half of workers were unable to pay their rent or mortgage.
  • A growing number of workers are unsure about their ability to afford food in the next two weeks.

These low-wage workers, which are mainly Black, Latinx and Asian women, are essential to our economy, Poo said.

“These jobs will be a large share of the jobs for future but the lowest paid with little to no access to a safety net,” she said. “We need to raise wages and offer benefits to this workforce.”

In addition to creating policies that would pay these women higher wages, Congress needs to provide access to benefits such as paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, health insurance, and a path to legalization and citizenship, she added. 

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Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes about women in the workplace and issues related to gender and diversity. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Business Insider, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Marketplace, Quartz, CQ Researcher and The Week. Follow her on Twitter: @lisarab.