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Covid Makes Domestic Work Even More Precarious

Adam Minter
·4 mins read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- White House officials have been likening their workplace to a “ghost town” since President Donald Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19. East Wing staffers are under orders to work from home, while many in the West Wing — if they aren’t isolating with their own cases — are also staying away. It’s a smart choice, but not one that’s available to everyone. Out of sight, the White House residence staff, numbering about 90, continues taking care of the daily needs of a contagious president and first lady.The risks are considerable, and they’re not just health-related. Even in good times, domestic workers — a category that includes housekeepers, nannies, home health aides and butlers — make up one of America’s most vulnerable and poorly paid workforces. During the Covid outbreak, thanks to private homeowners cutting back on outside help, many of these workers have been left with few protections or alternatives. Working from someone else’s home, it turns out, is one of the most precarious of pandemic professions.Throughout history, domestic workers have provided a useful lens for understanding social hierarchies. In America, they first arrived as slaves and indentured servants in the 17th century. After the Civil War, their lowly status persisted as former slaves became low-paid housekeepers and caregivers. By 1870, 52% of employed women worked as “domestic and personal service,” and such work remained the largest category of women’s labor in the U.S. until the 1940s.Even as that began to change, though, the transition from domestic work into other professions wasn’t an equal one. During the 1960s, nearly 90% of Black women in the South still worked as domestic servants. Today, such work is still practiced most often by marginalized groups that have struggled to overcome racial and class barriers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 92% of domestic workers are female and 52% women of color. They’re also disproportionately immigrants, with noncitizens making up more than half of the nation’s housecleaning force.Immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are particularly vulnerable in such situations. But the informal nature of so much domestic work makes it unstable for nearly everyone involved. Contracts for housekeepers and cleaners are rare and cash payments are common. Because domestic workers are often fearful about their ability to find other jobs, employers can get away with bottom-scraping wages. In California, the median hourly wage for a domestic worker is $10.87. Benefits, including health insurance, are uncommon.Regulators have long been reluctant to treat home-based employment as similar to a traditional worksite, and that may make sense from a practical standpoint. But it also has some serious downsides. In a recent survey of 700 California domestic workers, who are excluded from the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Act, 75% reported a job-related injury, illness or other harm in the past 12 months. About one in four reported catching a contagious disease. From their standpoint, though, it’s best not to complain: More than two-thirds expected employer retaliation if they refused to perform an unsafe task.The pandemic has only raised the stakes. Cleaners aren’t just keeping the homestead neat; they’re keeping it safe from the coronavirus. Nannies aren’t just taking care of children; they’re potentially caring for carriers of an infectious disease. At the same time, the pandemic has made many would-be employers reluctant to let workers into their homes, or simply unable to afford them. Unemployment in the sector soared to 40% early on in the crisis, before starting a slow recovery. Even those lucky enough to stay on the job still face significant risks: Nearly one-third of domestic workers report that they lack adequate personal protective equipment.There’s no data on how many of these workers have contracted the virus. But the New York Times reports that four members of the White House residence staff, including three housekeepers, have so far been infected. When their tests were returned, they were asked to show “discretion” in discussing it — a cold reminder of the power imbalances that so many domestic workers face in other people’s homes.Of course, a job in the White House comes with resources, such as protective gear and decent insurance, that isn’t available to most such workers. But that shouldn’t be such a privilege. Instead, it’s the bare minimum owed to the millions of domestic workers nationwide who are risking their health and safety for the families who rely on them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."

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