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Domestic workers now facing homelessness

Survey finds workers struggling without access to social safety net

Morgan C. Mullings

In a survey conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, black immigrant domestic workers in Boston and other cities explained the widespread unemployment and fear of losing their homes without a safety net.

While dealing with “three converging storms,” the pandemic, economic depression and systemic racism, 59% of domestic workers in Massachusetts lost their jobs, according to the report, which was released last week. In addition, 49% of respondents dealt with relatives who had COVID-19 symptoms or had the symptoms themselves.

The National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA), in partnership with the Institute for Policy Studies’ (IPS) Black Worker Initiative, conducted the survey between May 19 and June 6, with 811 responses from black immigrant domestic workers in Massachusetts, Miami-Dade Florida, and New York City. A jarring 45% lost their jobs overall, and 25% had their pay or hours reduced in some way. In a press call June 16, Associate Fellow Marc Bayard said that those who work as nannies, caretakers, house cleaners and other domestic workers were chosen for the survey “to capture the large Haitian Jamaican, Nigerian and Caribbean populations in those major metropolitan areas and the Afro Brazilian population.”

Focusing on immigrants allowed the researchers to divide the data by those documented and undocumented, uncovering many disparities. Undocumented workers were twice as likely to experience job loss. In addition, more than half of the undocumented respondents said their immigration status impacted their ability to find new work.

“Given the fragility of this industry and the lack of regulation, rules and work contracts, the ability for the employers to let workers go so easily; that’s really been highlighted in this pandemic. And unlike other workers who could apply for unemployment and who can apply for [Paycheck Protection Program] if you’re a small business, these workers … do not have the ability,” Bayard added. That includes Boston domestic workers — 59% lost their jobs or have fewer hours and less pay. About half of those who remained at work received no safety equipment from their employer.

Lydia, a domestic worker from Boston, was told not to come back into work because of COVID-19, with no prior notice.

“I feel like right now I’m in a limbo,” she said during the press call. “People don’t want me to in their house for fear of me bringing the virus. My husband is the only provider at the moment.”

It’s been almost a month without work for Lydia, and recently her husband contracted the virus and has been staying home as well.

One of the most important findings was that workers were afraid to reach out to their local government for help, despite expressing a dire need for cash assistance. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the NDWA and IPS will continue to survey workers, especially black female immigrant workers, as they have been doing since 2018, to highlight the underlying crises they endure.

Aimée-Josiane Twagirumukiza, black organizing director at NDWA, says her group is continuously looking for new ways to get governments to support increasing wages and leave policies for domestic workers, “something that could make a really big difference for people who are having to make the hard decisions of caring for themselves or their families and having a day’s work on their paycheck.”

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