The stories are distressing. Last week, one of the undocumented housekeepers my organization supports was laid off from her job, but she’s not allowed to apply for unemployment. An undocumented home health aide quit after her employer refused to give her safety equipment like gloves and a mask. A single mother with two young daughters lost all of her work as a house cleaner, and doesn’t have enough money to pay bills this month. Her internet bill is overdue, and if it’s shut off, her daughters won’t be able to continue school. She worries she could lose their home.
These are just some of the 400 home health aides, cleaners, and nannies who receive support from my organization Domesticas Unidas, an affiliate of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Since the pandemic started, I have watched these incredible women, most of them undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, risk their own health to care for the families, the elderly and the infirm residents of San Antonio. They are truly working on the front lines of the crisis, despite having no safety net. And their situation has exposed glaring inequalities in our economy, as well as how important they are to our city, state, and nation.
Our organization exists because of these inequalities. According to a 2018 survey of domestic workers near the Texas-Mexico border, more than 40 percent struggled to pay rent, and more than half said they were unable to pay for medical care for someone in their household. Nationwide, 82 percent of country’s 2.5 million domestic workers lack sick leave. We try to fill in the gaps, connecting members to food banks, job training and emergency funds for rent and bills. We also provide domestic violence services and immigration rights seminars.
But in a public health crisis like COVID-19, there’s only so much we can do. The women we support have been left out of the federal stimulus package, even though undocumented immigrants pay billions in taxes every year. In 2018, for example, they paid $20.1 billion in federal taxes and $11.8 billion in state and local taxes, according to New American Economy.
This is shameful. These women perform vital services. Nannies allow parents and guardians to work full-time jobs. Home health aides care for our most vulnerable seniors. And cleaners keep our homes germ-free. Much of this work involves bathing, feeding and administering medications to patients, as well as doing laundry, heavy cleaning, and more. Some workers live in the house and care for their employers or patients 24 hours a day with minimal time off and low pay.
These are not jobs many Americans will do; the home health care industry in particular is facing severe workforce shortages. Boomers are retiring at a rate of 10,000 people a day, and the number of Americans age 80 and older reached a record 12.7 million in the U.S. in 2018 – up from 11.2 million in 2010. This means home health aides are one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country, with jobs expected to grow by 48 percent by 2022. And in Texas, one quarter of home health aides are immigrants.
I started Domesticas Unidas because I used to be one of these undocumented domestic workers. I came to the U.S. from Mexico City in 1990. Back home, I was studying to become a marine biologist but after passing my exams, I didn’t have the money to continue my education. I was told I could earn enough in America to cover my studies, so I made the nearly thousand-mile journey alone, leaving my 12-year-old son with my mother. I walked for days, crossing barren deserts, delirious from heat, thirst and hunger. Once in the U.S., earning money wasn’t as easy as promised. Soon, my goal was to simply survive.
Although I had an advanced degree, I cleaned houses to get by. The hours were brutal and with constant exposure to dangerous chemicals, I worried about my health. My hopes of returning home dwindled as bills and debt stacked up. On the bus route I took to work, I met other undocumented women who were working as house cleaners or caregivers. In 2003, the city suspended our bus route, forcing us to either walk long distances to work or lose our jobs. We organized and met with city transit representatives to restore the route, and to our surprise, the city relented. I saw how much stronger we were when we worked together. Domesticas Unidas was born.
Domestic workers have long hid in the shadows of the American economy. Now, during the worst pandemic in 100 years, they are some of the few who have stepped out into the light. They are riding city buses as the rest of us shelter in place, caring for society’s most vulnerable, and cleaning up after us, despite the risks to their own well-being. I hope we acknowledge just how necessary they are. For too long, they have been unrecognized and devalued. It’s time that changed.