Black, Female Domestic Workers Face Heightened Risk During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Nanny taking care of restless brothers
Scary Mommy and Boris SV/Getty

In the midst of well-deserved cheering for doctors, nurses, and first responders, there are those among us who are getting little-to-no recognition and protection for the time and energy they pour into society. These are domestic workers, such as nannies and house cleaners, who are also on the front lines. With COVID-19 continuing to rage, many essential domestic workers are facing a reduction (or complete elimination) in work hours — and thus, their pay. Others are working without health insurance and appropriate protective gear, like masks.

In a press release shared with Scary Mommy, The National Domestic Workers Alliance is calling for help, noting that many low-wage, domestic workers are immigrants and women of color. They deserve to have better protections in place. Those who work as nannies, house cleaners, and home workers should be treated with dignity and respect. The NDWA is asking for “better base pay, protective equipment, accessible testing, family care support and hazard pay” for these workers.

The Associated Press analyzed data that showed that 33% of those who have died of COVID-19 are black, though they only represent “14% of the population in the areas covered in the analysis.” They noted that black people are also at a higher risk for pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma, making them more susceptible to COVID19.

Additionally, there are two other important factors that the AP article notes. First, black people are less likely to have medical insurance. Then there’s the reality of systemic racism within the medical community where black people are treated unfairly when they seek treatment for medical concerns. This has been a long-standing issue, one that also impacts black mothers and their babies.

Ai-jen Poo, the NDWA executive director, explained in the press release that domestic work is essential for communities and families, but domestic workers have been “undervalued and excluded from equal protections for decades.” Domestic workers are the first to lose their income and the last to receive the support that they need. Poo added, “Our solutions must both meet their immediate needs, and address long-standing inequalities that have increased their vulnerability and heightened the crisis for this segment of our workforce and their families.”

Alicia Garza, with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Principal at the Black Futures Lab, shared, “Black workers were already being left behind on so many fronts—and now with America at the middle of a storm in the form of a public health crisis, Black communities are being faced with a tsunami.” She reports that black communities are facing a 50% unemployment rate during the pandemic. She echoes Poo’s belief that black domestic workers need health and safety protections, and adds that “Black workers deserve better than what our country is currently offering.”

The NDWA provided interviews with women workers of color. Safiyya, a black home care worker in North Carolina, shared that she used to work forty-eight hours a week, and now she’s down to ten hours max. She tried filing for unemployment, but the system is overwhelmed and ill-prepared to help so many people at once. She added, “We need to support home care workers because without us, the elderly don’t stand a chance.”

Sarah, who is a black nanny working in NYC, shared that her job entails not just being a nanny, but a counselor, caretaker, cook, and parent (when the parents aren’t around). She said, “We have to work around the clock to make sure the family we work for has some order in their lives. [. . .] We are essential workers, but our work is often considered worthless [. . .].”

Betania is an Afro-Latina house cleaner in Philadelphia. She shared that she has to work despite the pandemic because she has two little kids to feed. She doesn’t have health insurance and must keep cleaning for income. She said, “My employers don’t buy me the proper equipment to clean, like gloves or a mask, so I feel like I’m constantly at risk.”

You might be wondering about the stimulus checks. Yes, every little bit helps, but let’s remember that not everyone got a stimulus check. For example, as Scary Mommy reported, “U.S. citizens aren’t eligible to receive the money if they’re married and filed taxes jointly with an immigrant who doesn’t have a social security number.” Undocumented workers also don’t receive a check, as they don’t have a social security number. Also, let’s be real: Even for those who did receive a check, the grand total was very little in comparison to what many Americans realistically need to care for themselves and their families.

If you’re wondering what you can do to help domestic workers of color, there are a few options. First, if you hire house cleaners, a nanny, or other domestic workers, keep paying them if you can afford to do so. Yes, this means even if you aren’t using their services at this time or have reduced their work hours. If this isn’t possible because of your own financial situation, try to help the person apply for unemployment. It can be a cumbersome process, and having an extra set of eyes and ears to guide can be helpful to the person filing.

Another option is to donate to the NDWA Coronavirus Care Fund. The NDWA promises that your donation will “provide immediate financial support for domestic workers, and enable them to stay home and healthy.” This protects themselves, but also their families — and their communities — by slowing the spread of the virus.

The global pandemic our world is facing can be much more difficult for some. I’m a firm believer in doing our part in the ways that we can. Some people are making masks and volunteering at food pantries. Some are offering hefty tips to their Instacart shoppers. Others are continuing to pay their domestic workers in spite of temporarily suspending those services. Some are choosing to contact their politicians, urging them to create fairer laws to level the playing field for everyone, including people of color.

All of us should look for opportunities to give where we can, whether that be our money, our energy, or our time. We need to work together to support marginalized communities, now more than ever.