Illustrations by Juan Astasio
Lea la versión en español de esta historia aquí.
Covid-19 has exposed the precariousness of one of the most invisible — yet essential — workforces: domestic workers. In the United States, the pandemic’s economic crisis has hit domestic workers hard: 90 percent reported having lost their jobs by late March in 2020, and three out of four were primary breadwinners in their households, according to a report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). And they’re still far from recovery.
Almost one-third of the domestic workers in the United States are Latinas, and U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that Latinas’ participation in the workforce has fallen the most since the onset of the pandemic. In house cleaning, half of workers are foreign-born, and Latinas make up 62 percent of those workers. During the pandemic, less than a third of Spanish-speaking domestic workers received stimulus checks, and more than 90 percent did not receive unemployment benefits.
We spoke to five Latina immigrant housekeepers about how they’ve survived during the pandemic. Here are their stories, in their own words, translated from Spanish.
Sandra Gómez, 32, San Antonio
When the pandemic started, I didn’t think it was true. My clients started canceling. When they closed my daughter’s school it was more difficult, because I have a 9-year-old and a baby who’s 20 months old. I had to take my older daughter to the houses I was cleaning. She would get dizzy; breathing inside the same face mask for 8 to 10 hours disgusted her. About two weeks later, the day care closed.
In June, I got covid-19. I was very sick. I vomited, had diarrhea, fever. My husband didn’t want to take me to the hospital, he was so afraid [because we’re undocumented]. I locked myself in a bedroom. I lost sense of time for around six days. It was when I got sick that I said: This is real. I had to let my clients know [that I had contracted covid-19], and they didn’t want me to go back to their houses. Since June 2020, my husband has been the only economic support for the family.
In December 2020, my husband was pulled over for speeding. Police told him they couldn’t let him go because they had an arrest order; he had reentered the United States after being deported. The Christmas holidays were very sad. I had no job. The girls were at home. My husband has been in custody since. How am I going to stay afloat? Who’s going to bring money home?
Cindia Martinez, 34, San Francisco
I came to this country four years ago, mostly for the future of my daughter, who is 17. My son was born with an intellectual and language disability, and I wanted to ensure some stability in his education as well. In Mexico, I was a social worker, and I got a degree in psychology. Because of the pandemic, I lost my job as a child caregiver. I’m also a promoter of community health. I worked cleaning houses in the past, and now, when there’s an opportunity, I’m doing it again.
Before the pandemic, I was living with my sister and her husband. They have two children. In the apartment, there was also a young woman and her husband, two girls and three boys. We also had another young man in the pantry. The pantry in an apartment in one of those “nice” zip codes — where they probably have no idea that covid-19 exists — that’s a living space for us, the newly arrived. So there were too many of us inside the apartment. The landlord wanted to evict us and raise the rent, because my sister has been living in the apartment for 14 years.
In the end, I made the decision to leave. First I thought: I’m going to go to a shelter. But I found a closet within someone else’s house for me and my two children. It was 72 by 32 inches and rent was $1,100 a month, with bills included. When I thought that I was finally going to be safe with my children, the women I was living with told me I had to go because they couldn’t make rent either. We had the right not to pay, because of the moratorium. But being an immigrant, I was afraid of putting myself in front of a court and that migration officers would show up.
My salary isn’t enough to live in San Francisco. I had to move out of the city so that my children could have space. But now I’m facing other challenges, like having to drive daily to the city, paying for gas. It’s a vicious cycle. You’re not living, you’re surviving. Domestic work is not when you choose to do it, but when they need your services. We’re completely invisible. We’re visible when it comes to ensuring everything is clean, but we’re invisible when it comes to our rights.
Leticia López, 30, Houston
For six years, I nannied two children seven days a week. I worked from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. I didn’t go home until the kids were asleep. On the weekends, I started work at 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. [On weekdays,] I also cleaned houses in the mornings. The children’s parents are doctors. They work a lot, now even more with covid-19.
When I started, the boy was four months old and now he’s already 6. Then the girl was born, and I took care of her as well. She recently turned 3. I loved them a lot. I enjoyed taking them out to play, teaching them how to ride a bike, make crafts, paint, sing.
During the pandemic, I was always working. I’d prepare lunch for them to take to work, wash their clothes, I pretty much did all the housework. When the parents didn’t have time to come back home, I stayed for the night without getting paid extra hours or anything. They didn’t raise my salary in six years. I didn’t mind all that work because I loved the children so much.
In December 2020, I didn’t go to work because my husband tested positive for covid-19. I called them and told them I had also just been tested. Because of the holidays, it took seven days to get the results. They told me to stay home and take care of myself. When I recovered, I sent them a negative test, and they fired me. Just like that, without saying anything.
They didn’t let me say goodbye to the kids. That hurts a lot. I feel like a mother who abandoned her children. I saw them grow up. But, what can I do? Nothing. It’s the only thing I say to my husband: Forget about the fact that we don’t have any money; all I want to know is how the children are doing.
I’d really like for people to value the work of those who take care of elderly people and children, because they can’t fend for themselves. And it’s not valued. But I already realized that as an employee, you can’t give everything to a family, because then this is what happens. And they don’t even say thank you. And they don’t care whether you have a job or not.
Rosana Araujo, 48, Miami
I left Uruguay 18 years ago with my son and my ex-husband. In Uruguay I was a professor; I taught art, music and history at a university. But I had to migrate. It was a very hard decision, unexpected, caused by the deep economic crisis the country was going through since the 2000s, known as “corralitos.”
Before the pandemic, I cleaned three houses per week and topped off with finance tasks at a carpenter’s shop on Saturdays. I was doing okay. In March, all projects started to fall apart. By June or July, I had no jobs. My landlord called me all the time. It was extremely difficult, because I had to use all my credit cards. I was desperate because I didn’t receive any help from the government.
In October, my son was diagnosed with cancer. Medulloblastoma. He’s 20. He recently graduated high school. He had surgery, and now we’ve started with radiation and chemotherapy. During one of the sessions, they told me they wouldn’t perform the treatment if I didn’t pay $500. That day, he had three sessions scheduled: a doctor’s visit, chemo and radiation. Where am I going to get $1,500?
My colleagues created a GoFundMe to help me, because I have to take care of my son 24 hours a day. I was very worried, I couldn’t sleep. My hair started falling out. I felt like the moment when I migrated to the United States. The same. Some days I wake up and say: That’s enough, I don’t have any strength left. But there are a lot of colleagues who are in the same situation as me. Some even worse — they’ve contracted serious covid-19, others have passed away or have lost a loved one. We’re very, very affected emotionally and mentally. We always fall back into the same hole: not having that magical [social security] number that doesn’t allow you to do anything. Someone who has a university degree is just as valuable as someone who cleans homes.
Evelin Alfaro, 40, San Francisco
I’ve been in this country for approximately 11 years, working as a housekeeper. In Guatemala, I also did domestic work, but I didn’t value it. I live in San Francisco with two sisters, who are also housekeepers. We share a three-bedroom apartment. I’m single. I don’t have kids. One of my sisters is married, and the other one is a single mother. With my nephews, we’re about eight people in the apartment. I share a room with my sister and her son.
When the governor issued the stay-at-home order, I stayed home. I tried to look at it from the positive side. We organized and painted the kitchen. But after some time, when I saw that I had no work, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Before the pandemic, I had 12 to 15 employers. I also took care of children. I did have one employer who supported me during the pandemic; he kept paying me even though I didn’t go to work. But that was very limited, because I’d only go there once a month.
It was also very hard because I have eye problems. I was planning on getting surgery. Before the pandemic I went to the hospital to see if they could do the surgery directly, without paying. But they told me they couldn’t until I completely lost sight in that eye. I didn’t want to get to that point, because I depend on myself. I said: I’m going to save money to get the surgery. This kind of procedure costs about $3,000-3,500. I was able to save a bit. But when the pandemic hit and I lost all my work, I had to use that money to survive. If I hadn’t had the money for my planned surgery, I don’t know how I would have settled my expenses.
Also, in the pandemic, employers asked us to use toxic products that were more harmful to our health and worsened my condition. Because they get in through your eyes, your ears. The one they use the most is chlorine. It’s too strong. When I use it, it irritates my eyes, it makes me cry. As housekeepers, we don’t have health or safety protections. How is it possible that our work, which makes other work possible, is something that isn’t properly valued? We’re human beings and we deserve protections.
Still, I like sweeping a lot, because, as I say, I can “move my hips.” I like moving all the time. I love my job and it continues to fascinate me. I think I’ll love it until I die.
This reporting was supported by National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists.