Maria has been a domestic worker for nearly 20 years. She immigrated to South Florida from Peru in the early 2000s and quickly got to work building a life for herself and her family. Today, she has a kid in college, a cleaning business with her husband, and up until the Covid-19 pandemic started, was well on her way to securing funds for a new apartment. (Maria’s family is currently living with her 82-year-old mother in order to save money.) A year ago, Maria found herself working almost every day, sometimes cleaning two houses in an afternoon. But in the Covid-19 era, she tells me that she’s lost 50 percent of her clients. Sometimes, she can only book one, maybe two shifts a week.
Maria, who asked Vox to use a pseudonym for her in this story, understands her disadvantages. She’s on the front lines, doing her best to scrape by, with no social safety net to bail her out. The Covid-19 relief bills that have been passed by Congress have mostly ignored the millions of undocumented essential workers who never had the chance to suspend work as the virus took hold in America. “Nonresident aliens” were precluded from receiving the first round of $1,200 stimulus checks, and as the government distributes its $600 checks, they will go unacknowledged again.
All of this has forced Maria to tighten her belt. She says her family is far more modest with the food they buy, and she takes extra precautions when she cleans houses for fear of exposing her mother, who falls into the high-risk demographic. In recent years, Maria has gotten involved in the justice movement for her industry. She’s a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and advocates for overtime compensation, sick leave, and paid time off — which she says are long-overdue benefits for a fundamental organ of US labor. We talked about that, as well as what it’s like to clean in a shower cap and goggles, and the anxiety that comes with knocking on someone’s door in the middle of a pandemic.
How did you get your start as a domestic worker after immigrating from Peru?
I came to the United States with my university degree in psychology from my country. It was my dream, and still is my dream, to work as a psychologist. But it was more convenient to work in cleaning in offices and houses. I’ve been doing that for 17 years now. I work with my husband. He started with me about two years ago.
Who brought you into the business?
One of my brothers was living here before me. When I came to Florida I contacted him, and he told me to get a job in this industry.
When did the pandemic start to affect you back in March? How do you remember that time?
It affected me immediately. Before the pandemic, we were doing well. We had a lot of clients and were working every day full time. But then the clients got scared about us going to their houses and they started to cancel. In a very short time, we only had half of our clients. All that happened within a month.
How did your schedule change after that?
Before, I was doing two houses a day or even three houses a day. Then, we were down to two houses a week. It disrupted all of our plans. We were saving money in order to move, because we’re living in my mom’s apartment, who is 82. We made that sacrifice so we could afford my youngest daughter’s dorm in college. It was uncomfortable for us, but we were planning on getting out of there soon. But my daughter also lost her job at her school, which closed down when the pandemic started. So she needed more help from us. It’s been very difficult. Even with the clients we kept, it’s still scary going to work.
What impact has this had on your financial situation? Did you have to tap into all of those savings?
We had to cut a lot of our expenses, especially with food. We had to be very stringent with what we bought and what we were eating. And yes, we did have to take some money out of our savings.
How have you tried to protect yourself when you go clean houses these days?
We’re wearing gloves and masks. Sometimes we put on goggles and shower caps. I wash my hands before and after and we discard all the items that we use. We get home and take a shower and wash all the clothes. For my clients, some of them wear masks, others don’t. But they respect me if I wear a mask. There’s no problem with that. Some of them ask me before I show up, “Please wear masks and gloves.”
You mentioned that you’re living with your mother. Do you worry about exposing her?
Of course. That’s why we take a lot of care when we go out to work. Outside of my job, we pretty much only leave to go buy food.
Have you seen work rebound at all? Has it recovered since April?
Some clients cut their services indefinitely, others have come back. But it’s been different regardless. For example, I used to clean this one house every week. But now they aren’t able to afford a cleaning every week. So they have me back every two weeks or every three weeks. It’s certainly gotten better, but it’s not the same.
You’re a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Have you always been involved? Or have you become more of an activist lately?
I’ve been involved since 2016. All my friends told me about the group, and they told me about the rights we don’t have that we could organize for. The NDWA gives us classes for free online. It’s very helpful. I want domestic workers to be aware that they have to protect themselves, and they have to be conscious of the disadvantages that we have. But I want them to stay hopeful and fight for solutions. That means they have to get involved in groups and social movements, so we can get rights and benefits.
Have you gotten any assistance from the government? Have you been able to take out a loan at all?
No, we weren’t able to take out a grant. Even though we paid taxes all this year, we weren’t able to get a grant. Probably because we’re out of [immigration] status at the moment.
You mentioned that you’re undocumented. What kind of action would you like to see from the government to assist domestic workers like you right now?
Domestic workers are on the front lines, and we’re closest to those who are vulnerable: the elderly, those with chronic illnesses, and so on. During the pandemic, this has been terrible because we don’t have the same protections as other workers. We have to go in even if our health is at risk. Employers can help by providing paid sick days, and relief needs to include people regardless of their immigration status. But that’s not enough. We need to pass a National Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights. There are more than 2 million of us in the United States. This is the reality.