Leydis Muñoz’s hands constantly smell of bleach these days. Muñoz, an Afro-Latina domestic worker living in New York City, has been cleaning constantly for fear of contracting Covid-19. Her employer let her go as a nanny last year to avoid paying maternity leave. Now, thanks to fear of the virus, it’s a struggle to find work.
“If we don’t work, we don’t get paid,” Muñoz said. “If we don’t get paid, we don’t eat or have any shelter for our family.”
Muñoz is far from alone. Black immigrant domestic workers are at the epicenter of three converging storms—the pandemic, the resulting economic depression, and structural racism. A recently-released survey from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Institute for Policy Studies reveals the compounding effects of these crises on Black immigrant domestic workers in Massachusetts, New York City, and Miami-Dade county. Muñoz was one of the domestic workers sharing her story during a press conference for the survey’s release.
More than 800 domestic workers in all three locales have reported dramatic changes in their job situations as the pandemic has progressed. Seventy percent have either lost their jobs or seen their hours and pay reduced. The situation is particularly dire in Miami-Dade, where 83 percent of workers surveyed said their position had been terminated and an additional 9 percent said they had less pay.
“The reality is that these domestic workers have been working throughout this pandemic and they feel even more stretched and even more unseen and even more vulnerable during this economic time,” Marc Bayard, the Director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative, said on the call. The financial instability means that 65 percent of surveyed workers worry they’re at risk for being evicted or having their utilities shut off.
The precarious nature of their work also has consequences on their health. Of the workers surveyed, 73 percent said they’d not received any personal protective equipment from their employers, and 51 percent don’t have medical insurance. Those responses are especially concerning as 25 percent have either had Covid-19 symptoms themselves, or live with someone who has exhibited symptoms.
Lydia is one such worker. A mother of three, her husband became the sole breadwinner when she was let go in mid-April over Covid-19 concerns. “My income just stopped like that,” she said. “I was not given any advance notice or unemployment benefits.” Her situation deteriorated when her husband became ill with Covid-19 himself. “Right now, domestic workers are facing crisis after crisis,” she said, expressing the need for direct cash assistance as well as policy changes that could protect workers like her when they lose their jobs.
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“Domestic workers…are doing many of the same jobs as other essential workers, but have not received as much attention, and definitely have not received as much support in terms of the equipment they need to protect themselves,” Bayard said. “Given the fragility of this industry and the lack of regulation, rules, and work contracts…the lack of safety-net and job security has really been highlighted,” Bayard said.
Threatening rhetoric towards immigrants has only made access to resources markedly worse. Nearly half of the workers surveyed said they were fearful of seeking assistance from governments due to concerns over their immigration status.
As political officials consider how to address the intertwined health and economic crises, they should center the needs of Black immigrant domestic workers in recovery efforts. “In addition to policing, which we know has its own origins in the slave economy, similar to domestic work—we’re seeing this converge with all these other existing crises,” Aimée-Josiane Twagirumukiza, the Black Organizing Director at National Domestic Workers Alliance, said. “And how it manifests for Black domestic workers is that they’re working and living through multiple crises all the time.”
Both the pandemic and the protests in the streets over police violence are two concrete examples of how the foundational racism of the United States continues today. Black Americans are dying from Covid-19 at three times the rate of white Americans and face higher rates of unemployment. They’re also more likely to be harassed by police over social distancing guidelines.
Governments could help address immediate needs by offering concrete relief accessible to all families, including cash assistance and eviction and utility shut-off moratoriums, Twagirumukiza said. And recovery, from both the pandemic and depression, should be focused towards solutions that build up a lasting care infrastructure. One way to do that, NDWA policy manager Alana Eichner mentioned, is by heeding the call to defund the police, and choosing instead to invest in housing, nutrition, healthcare, and other policies that build resilience.
“As state economies begin to open up, what we don’t want to do is for things to go back to normal,” Twagirumukiza said. "We can see that normal hasn’t worked for most industries, and especially not for domestic workers."