COVID-19 Has Highlighted Long-Standing Issues North Carolina Domestic Workers Face
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Adriana has a familiar story with immigration.
“I got here, like everyone else who arrives in this country,” she said, “looking for a better opportunity and life.”
We’re not using Adriana's full name because she is not in the country legally.
She emigrated from Mexico in 1999 and made her way to Charlotte two years later. Ever since then, she’s primarily worked taking care of children and cleaning houses while raising five kids of her own. Adriana is one of nearly 60,000 domestic workers in the state, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Adriana said she had big plans for 2020. She had left the cleaning company that employed her to venture out on her own, and she said by the end of 2019, she had a growing client list and was making about $500 a week.
Then the pandemic hit.
Adriana says work almost completely stopped. She went from cleaning around five houses a week to one or two. She was only bringing home around $100 a week.
“When the pandemic hit, work really decreased because we couldn’t go to work,” she said. “My clients didn’t want people going into their houses for health and safety reasons.”
Despite those safety concerns, she had to keep working. Adriana is the main breadwinner for her family. Given her immigration status, there were no (Paycheck Protection Program) loans or relief options for her. The only aid she received came in the form of food stamps. Having been born in the U.S., her children qualified for them.
That necessity to work came with a big risk. And in June, Adriana tested positive for COVID-19. She says she cleaned a house whose owner was infected.
“At first, I panicked, and I wondered, ‘What’s going to happen? What can happen to me?’” Adriana said. “It was really stressful and difficult because, even though at that time I didn’t have a lot of work, I had to stay home for 14 days, which was really difficult.”
Between the decline in work and having to isolate for two weeks, Adriana says making ends meet financially has been difficult.
She says that, thankfully, over the past couple of weeks, work has been starting to pick back up.
“During the pandemic, it’s been really, really difficult,” she said. “I’ve even gotten behind on paying some of my bills, like my electric bill. And it wasn’t until about a month ago that I was able to pay everything off.”
Nearly 92% of the country’s 2.5 million domestic workers are women. Fifty-two percent are women of color, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. A recent survey found around 76% of them are the main source of income for their families. That includes Adriana.
Before the pandemic, about 25% of domestic workers said they made roughly $300 during their best week. That number jumped to 78% during the pandemic.
“Domestic work is largely underpaid and undervalued,” said Chanelle Croxton, North Carolina state organizing director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “We have a lot of workers who are making below living wages, doing the jobs that they do, oftentimes having to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet and working with little to no protections and benefits.”
Croxton says the pandemic has brought attention to the longstanding issues domestic workers have faced, which include low wages, limited to no benefits and putting up with harassment from employers.
“This moment of time is really interesting because we finally have the narrative to support the work that we've been doing for a long time,” Croxton said. “Hearing domestic workers and care workers and other low wage earners referred to as essential workers is something that we've always understood. We always say domestic work is the work that makes all other work possible.”
Adriana says she enjoys this work.
“There’s a lot of people who work just to make money, but I like working,” she said. “I like knowing that I’m doing a good job and that my clients are content. That’s what I try to do with my work. I try to make sure my clients are happy with what I do.”
She says the more clients are happy with her work, the more likely they are to recommend her to others. That’s how she’s managed to grow her client list.
Adriana says work is almost back to normal, but she still has to juggle cleaning houses and taking care of her children, who are still partially going to school online. She says some days she has to stay home with them and not go to work. She also doesn’t drive, so she depends on her 18-year-old daughter to get from house to house.
A year ago, when everything was shutting down, Adriana feared she wouldn’t be able to support her family. Now she’s looking to the future and encouraging other women to find job opportunities and be financially independent.
Additional Resources For Those Who Need Help
The National Domestic Workers Alliance provides resources to domestic workers and employers. The organization created a Coronavirus Care Fund and a Coronavirus Resource Center to provide support to domestic workers across the country. They also have information for people seeking to employ domestic workers.