Story at a glance
- The coronavirus pandemic has forced many domestic workers to weigh their finances against their health.
- A new report finds a majority of these workers have no health insurance and are facing dwindling employment opportunities.
- Many domestic workers are Black, immigrant women who find themselves battling not only a pandemic but also societal marginalization.
Anastancia Cuna has been working as a nanny for more than two decades. In that time, she has never been offered health insurance from any of the families who employ her. The 38-year-old mother has been able to get coverage under her husband’s health insurance in the past, but after switching jobs earlier this year, they found themselves without health care at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was terrified to know it was a deadly disease, but more scared that I didn’t have health insurance and I couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket the hospital bill if I got infected,” said Cuna, who lives in Peabody, Massachusetts, and works in Boston. She was already living paycheck to paycheck, but she had to stop working or risk the health of her and her family.
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In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a racial reckoning in the United States, Black immigrant domestic workers are struggling to stay afloat. A new survey calls this population "some of the most invisible and vulnerable workers in our country," marginalized economically, socially and politically.
Seventy percent of Black immigrant domestic workers in three locations have either lost their jobs or received reduced hours and pay, according to the survey of more than 800 domestic workers in Massachusetts, Miami-Dade, Florida and New York City. The survey was conducted by The Institute for Policy Studies’ (IPS) Black Worker Initiative and the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) between May 19 and June 6, 2020.
Of the three locations in the survey, workers in Miami-Dade have been hit hardest: 93 percent have either been terminated or are working fewer hours with less pay, and 90 percent are also at risk of eviction or having their utilities shut off.
The survey also found that almost half of domestic workers surveyed (49 percent) are fearful of seeking assistance or resources from the federal, state, or local government due to their immigration status.
Undocumented domestic workers pay taxes, but are ineligible for the $6 trillion coronavirus relief package passed earlier this year. And while other forms of aid are available, even those with work permits are scared to take advantage of these relief funds and resources, Cuna said, fearing that it will hurt their chances of obtaining citizenship. In February, the Trump administration instituted a “public charge rule,” which means applicants for a green card or entry to the U.S. may be denied if they are more likely than not to get certain public benefits from the government in the future.
Those who are working are doing so at risk of their own personal health during the coronavirus pandemic, with about half reporting that they do not have medical insurance and 73 percent saying they have not received personal protective equipment (PPE) from their employers. In Miami-Dade, one of the hotspots in Florida, where coronavirus cases have spiked recently, 85 percent of domestic workers report they have no insurance.
One-quarter of surveyed domestic workers have experienced or live with someone who has experienced COVID-19 symptoms. In Massachusetts, where social distancing mandates have been eased in recent weeks, half of domestic workers report exposure.
Aimee-Josiane Twagirumukiza, director of Black organizing at the National Domestic Workers Association, said that without federal regulations or health guidelines, domestic workers are at the mercy of their employers' goodwill. Home care workers are at the frontlines of the pandemic in some cases, as nursing homes emerge as major hotspots for COVID-19.
“In many ways it is intimate work and working directly with vulnerable people who need preventative care,” she said.
At the same time, Black domestic workers face the continued effects of systemic racism in the United States — a long-standing issue that has resurfaced in the national conversation after the police killing of George Floyd. The industry itself is rooted in a violent past, with the first domestic workers being Black slaves.
“Domestic workers have been at the intersection of the crises of racism, the crisis of undervalued labor and the crisis of immigration,” Twagirumukiza said. “There was a perfect storm created and the pandemic came in and highlighted everything that was terribly wrong about the workplace.”
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