Undocumented and Unpaid: How Domestic Workers Are Risking Their Lives in the Pandemic

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Photo credit: Design by Mia Feitel

From ELLE

I grew up undocumented, and I know how they talk about us. They like to say we live in the shadows, though my mother’s kitchen was always sunny, and that we're invisible, though every restaurant in New York City, even the real fancy ones, is fully staffed by Mexicans. If your eye wanders as you eat, you can see them moving like bees through the swinging doors in the kitchen.

I guess you can just not think about us.

But there are people who know us intimately: the people who depend on us for our labor. Agriculture. Poultry. Meat processing. Restaurants. Deliveries. Delis. Landscaping. Childcare. Construction. Maintenance. Housekeeping. Those industries were built on our backs. And a few of those areas—childcare, eldercare, housekeeping—are the dominion of women. Over the past few weeks, during the unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic, an estimated 60% of domestic workers in Florida have lost their jobs.

So have millions of Americans, it’s true. But this didn't have to happen. I interviewed several of these workers, across various states, and they all told me the same thing: The families they worked for—several of them for many years—were financially well off. Their employers didn’t lose their jobs because of the virus. They’re all working from home. Continuing to pay their housekeepers likely wouldn’t devastate their finances. But maybe their stocks were affected, and this was a luxury they could part with. Maybe it’s something everyone around them is doing. Maybe paying someone for a job they’re not doing sounds like socialism.


I wrote a book called The Undocumented Americans, which came out last week. In six essays, I travel around the country and meet undocumented people, weaving their stories with my own. That’s how I established connections with the world of domestic workers. As I write in the book, I am uncomfortable calling myself a journalist. Journalists are not allowed to get involved the way I have gotten involved. Journalists, to the best of my knowledge, do not try to change the outcome of their stories as crudely as I do. I send water. I fight with immigration lawyers. I make arrangements with supernatural spirits to stop deportations. I try to solve shit the way an immigrant’s kids try to solve shit for their parent because these people are all my parents.

Let’s meet some women. [Editor's note: All names have been changed.]

Adela is 55 years old and lives in Florida. She was fired from all her cleaning jobs. Her husband is 55 and a janitor. He and another undocumented immigrant, who is 65, are in charge of 14 condominiums. They get paid $10 an hour. Since the outbreak, they’ve been tasked with disinfecting surfaces with bleach. The building owners haven’t provided any protective equipment, so Adela and her husband went to Wal-Mart and bought masks and gloves. “They’re not good for protection,” she says. “We don’t feel safe when we wear them.” One of the properties has a clubhouse and a pool, and despite social distancing orders from authorities, people are still partying. Her husband is terrified to be around them. “But if you stop, you can’t pay the rent,” she explains.

Her sisters, Jalessa, works at a fancy nursing home in Boca Raton. She cares for an elderly couple there six days a week. Although Jalessa didn’t want to talk to me, Adela tells me there is no protective equipment at the home; the employees just take their temperatures daily. Adela shared some of the Wal-Mart masks and gloves with her sister. Jalessa is afraid of getting the elderly couple sick. She’s grown fond of them and she doesn’t want to leave them alone. She knows it’s high-risk for them—and her too. She’s almost 60 and uninsured.

Magaly is 52 and the leader of Women United, a domestic worker alliance. She tells me that most of the women who still have jobs work in eldercare, but Magaly stresses how dangerous this is for public health. Florida passed legislation in July 2019 that makes it difficult for immigrants to drive without risking deportation. Now they’re crowding buses to get to work. “I ran into a woman on the bus the other day who told me about the elderly man she cared for,” Magaly tells me. “She told me his son won’t pick up the phone, even now. But she was not about to abandon him. She saw him as a father. She told me, ‘I’ll take care of him until I get sick.’”

I interviewed women who cleaned the houses and offices of hospital workers and doctors during the COVID outbreak. The health professionals said nothing to them about the virus; they provided no safety equipment and did not discuss their own exposure. One woman, Dahlia, 47, told me that a hospital worker in her early 30s let her clean and disinfect her home without mentioning the virus once. She did not provide masks or gloves, and then she didn’t ask Dahlia back—she just let her go without a word.

But Dahlia stands out to me. Of all the women I’ve spoken with, she’s the only one who has a client who’s continuing to pay her during the quarantine.

In my own neighborhood, I know a woman, Rachel, 50, who has continued to pay her longtime housekeeper for her biweekly cleaning services, even if she’s not using them. “It was a joint decision [with my husband] and not even really a discussion, just an acknowledgement that we would do this,” Rachel says. “We’ve known Veronica for a long time. We care about her and her family. She works so hard and deserves what we all deserve—to be safe, to have food, healthcare, and access to an education for her family.

“There's no glory in our paying her,” Rachel insists. “Please don't make me sound like some fucking do-gooder hippie. We have to do better than we do for people. We just fucking have to.”

Families who have not suffered job losses, who are still paid full wages for working from home, who don’t face employment precarity, who have savings, and who have been able to afford services like housekeeping, childcare, and gardening for years lose nothing by continuing to pay their workers. The reason they don’t is perhaps a failure of imagination, a cognitive distortion that makes them see people as bodies, as vehicles of labor and output.

Some women know better than this because we know what it’s like to be treated as bodies, to be needed for our parts. Successful women, bosses, bad bitches, CEOs, women who lean in—we all depend on working-class women to help us balance our lives. We need to imagine these women, most of them with little schooling and undocumented, as women with as much imagination, ambition, and intelligence as we have. And that may be a painful thought exercise.

I recently spoke to Velma, a 54-year-old woman from Argentina. She is a single mom who used to work as a housekeeper but lost her clients because of COVID. She says the only available jobs now are for cashiers, but you need a social security number. I’m asking her about finances when she goes on a tangent about the importance of a $15 minimum wage. She’s an activist. I ask her if she likes it. “It’s not about liking it. You have to fight for social justice and equality. You have to deposit your own grain of sand toward it. If we are fearful and sit at home with our arms crossed, nothing will be done.” She recites the number of organizations she is part of so quickly I can’t write them all down.

And Magaly, the 52-year-old housekeeper who organizes domestic workers? She is a former international rights lawyer specializing in Russia. She speaks Russian more fluently than English. Her specific passion is protecting undocumented migrants from unethical, predatory, or callous journalists. “I’ll ask for the story before they run it to see if there are misrepresentations, or I’ll tell the immigrant if they don’t feel comfortable to not answer or leave the interview,” she says. “I think sometimes they regress to a kind of colonialism.”

These are the women mopping our floors, scrubbing our toilets, disinfecting our bathrooms without safety equipment during an unprecedented pandemic, risking their lives. And these are the women who have been fired without compassion. I don’t believe the answer is charity. The answer, as Rachel said, is imagining that they deserve what we deserve. Imagining that they are more like us than they are different from us. Imagining that if life had taken two hops forward, one hop back, and a journey 2,000 completely arbitrary miles north, they would be you, maybe better than you, and the only difference might be, they’d pay you during the quarantine.

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