By Mariah A. Lindsay*
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities already facing multiple oppressions, including women, people of color, people living with low incomes, and immigrants.
This post focuses on the impacts of the pandemic on a group that encompasses many of these identities: domestic workers, such as home health care workers, house cleaners, and child care workers.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, these workers were already at a disadvantage, lacking the proper wages, healthcare, and workplace protections necessary to have meaningful autonomy and to live safe, happy, and healthy lives.
Domestic workers are a vital part of our lives, constituting a workforce of 2.2 million people, yet are invisible because they work in private homes. Because of the nature of their work, domestic workers are denied basic workplace protections. Domestic workers are often left out of laws protecting against workplace harassment and discrimination, protecting the right to organize and form labor unions, minimum wage laws, overtime pay, benefits like healthcare and retirements plans, and paid leave, among others. This exclusion is explicit, leaves domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation, and has its roots in racism and the exploitation of Black labor in the South.
Domestic workers are underpaid and disproportionately women, people of color, and immigrants. Over 90% of domestic workers are women, and over half are people of color. Women are even more disproportionately represented in house cleaning and child care positions. Domestic workers are more likely to have been born outside the U.S. as compared with workers in other industries, and on average, skew older. Domestic workers make an average of just $12.01 per hour, and, compared with workers with similar demographics, they earn only 74 cents on the dollar. Domestic workers are more likely to live below the poverty line and, even if they technically live above the poverty line, struggle to make ends meet. Only one in five domestic workers receives healthcare coverage through their employer and less than one in ten have access to a retirement plan through their employer.
As it did for others, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these existing issues and disparities. Some domestic workers were left without jobs—and without guarantees of returning to their previous positions—when the pandemic started and their employers engaged in practices like social distancing. Others were forced to continue to work in the homes of their employers, on the frontlines—caring for children, the elderly, and the sick, and cleaning homes—in enclosed spaces, and likely without proper protective equipment.
These impacts are not just hypothetical. The National Domestic Workers Alliance prepared a report released in October 2020 quantifying the impact the pandemic has had on domestic workers. The report found that “[b]y late March, more than 90% of workers lost jobs due to COVID-19.” By September, that percentage remained nearly four times higher than the pre-COVID rate of 9%. Joblessness and underemployment have left domestic workers housing and food insecure: “For six consecutive months, more than half of workers were unable to pay their rent or mortgage” and the number of workers who report not knowing whether they will be able to afford food in the next two weeks is growing. Domestic workers are fighting to survive every day in the U.S.
And the issues outlined here do not even begin to convey the gravity of the situation. In addition to many forms of discrimination and oppression, domestic workers have to worry about their own children and childcare and access to government benefits, especially for immigrants who were left out of the federal COVID-19 relief packages.
To reiterate, these problems existed prior to the pandemic. Like in so many other cases, the pandemic simply made the problems worse and even more pronounced. But, unlike in other cases, domestic workers are still largely invisible. It is critical to engage in efforts to pass laws and policies, like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, to ensure that domestic workers have the same workplace protections that exist in more regulated workplaces. At minimum, existing workplace protections need to apply to domestic workers, and any new laws providing for additional workplace protections need to explicitly include domestic workers.
We can no longer ignore the problem, we must act to change it. It is time to stop invisibilizing and undervaluing the lives and work of people who work as domestic workers.
*Mariah A. Lindsay is an attorney and the senior executive policy fellow and coordinator of programs with the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at UCI Law. She is also a producer on the podcast “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.”