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Domestic Workers’ Only Hope Is Submitting to Big Tech

In a post-pandemic world, cleaners, nannies, caregivers and others will likely have one option to stay afloat: Uber-like companies that prey on undocumented gig economy workers

Sicilia, 58, is an entrepreneur. Her business is cleaning the homes of strangers. As such, you may think that her success relies on how efficiently she cleans the parts of people’s homes that they’re unwilling or unable to do themselves, but that’s not entirely true, because if that were the case, she’d still be working. Instead, her success depends on how effectively she can ease a stranger’s concerns about welcoming a person they’ve never met into their home.

She’s very aware of the importance of this, which is why one day she may surprise her client by bringing them a horchata — a traditional sweet Mexican beverage — in a plastic Starbucks cup. Another day she may bring homemade tamales, wrapped in tinfoil and presented with a maternal smile. She doesn’t speak very much English, so she communicates “everything is okay” with a near impulsive tendency to apologize for things that require no apology. “I’m sorry, mister,” she’ll say before and after asking where to find bleach, or whether she can use the bathroom. This isn’t accidental — it’s her way of making her client feel safe, even in control. 

But none of that matters now. Her history of kindness and extreme modesty in uncomfortable situations are no longer applicable, maybe even obsolete. It especially doesn’t matter that before the pandemic, several of her clients considered her to be “like family.” This is all to say that Sicilia, in spite of her best efforts, has not had work since the end of March. “I had three clients in the last two weeks before April,” she tells me in a mix of English and Spanish. “No one calls me to come clean.”

This isn’t because her clients don’t need their homes cleaned anymore, at least, she doesn’t think so. It’s because her clients — understandably — are scared to invite a domestic worker into their home, and the current and future circumstances are such that there’s no amount of tinfoil-wrapped tamales Sicilia can bring along to change their minds. 

“The coronavirus crisis is compelling many families to reassess,” reports the New York Times in its article about domestic workers in the era of COVID. “Concerns about the safety of an outsider entering their homes coupled with financial instability have prompted even the well-heeled to dispense with their help, and severance payments are a rarity.”

One of the many side effects of “social distancing,” then, is our newfound fear of inviting the Sicilias of the world into our homes. “The term ‘social distance’ has a distinct meaning within sociology, and it’s usually not viewed as a good thing,” says Nik Theodore, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Urban Planning and Policy. “It’s viewed as this sort of tearing of the societal fabric.” 

In part of that fabric lies the relationship between domestic workers and their employers. This relationship — which in its nascent stage is built on trust between two strangers of different socioeconomic standing — is in large part thanks to the nature of this pandemic, currently in retrograde. As the coronavirus continues to eat away at social norms, there’s simply no room for an immigrant whose whereabouts can’t be verified in your supposed germ-free zone. 

Such was the lesson learned by Melissa L. St. Hilaire, a home-care aide, who, like Sicilia, has been left jobless and with no options, according to another story in the New York Times. When St. Hilaire reportedly arrived at work on March 16th, the daughter of the 95-year-old woman she takes care of opened the door and pulled her aside to tell her she didn’t “want anybody to bring the virus into my house” and that St. Hilaire was no longer needed. The reasoning the woman reportedly gave to St. Hilaire was that “she needed to have control over her home, her children and her mother.”

There are more than 2 million domestic workers in the U.S. Like Sicilia, many of them are undocumented immigrant women. “They are housecleaners, nannies and health aides working in private homes, a majority making less than $13 an hour,” according to a 2019 report. But unlike many of their employers, undocumented workers like Sicilia cannot collect unemployment or benefit from a government bailout. They’re part of the informal economy, and they’re typically paid cash for their work. Because of this, laying them off is as simple as sending a short text or ignoring their already near-invisible existence altogether. On April 9th, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) released results of a survey that shows the disproportionate effect the coronavirus has had on domestic workers: According to Ms. Magazine, 72 percent of respondents reported having no jobs beginning the week of April 6th.

While those numbers are staggering, not all domestic work is the same, and not all domestic workers are currently jobless. Per Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology and gender studies at USC, it really depends on the type of domestic worker we’re talking about. “I do think that there’s going to be a shift in demand between live-in and live-out workers,” she says.

Deloris Wright, for example, a domestic worker in Philadelphia who’s been with the same family for three generations, tells me she is still employed, but that the nature of her employment has recently changed. “My situation, it’s not that bad right now; I’m taking care of an elderly person,” she explains. “Usually I live here [her employer’s home] for five days so I can rest and go to church, unwind and then come back. But for the past five, six weeks, I can’t go home.”

Her employer’s demand that Wright stays with the family at all times is exactly the sort of shift Parreñas expects to see with regard to the future of domestic work. “This is the type of domestic work that requires longer and more hours, for example, elderly care or childcare.” The major issue here, aside from keeping these workers away from their own loved ones, is that as more employers demand that their domestic workers live in their homes, there’s a greater chance that their labor gets taken advantage of, “because hours of work never end.” “So workers will get compensated less for the labor that they do, and then families and the worker will have to struggle about creating that boundary in the workplace,” says Parreñas.

Chris Tilly, director of UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, agrees with Parreñas but notes that this shift from live-out to live-in domestic workers will likely only take place at the wealthier end of the client spectrum. “It’s been a century-long trend away from live-in,” he adds. “Most people can’t afford to pay someone to live in their homes 24/7.” He thinks that the most likely difference between the domestic work industry pre-pandemic and the domestic industry post-pandemic will be a movement toward the “Uberization” of domestic work. That is, in a post-pandemic era, third-party agencies like Merry Maids or will thrive because they “can put on their website that they’re doing X, Y and Z to make sure that their workers have been tested and are safe to bring into your home,” he says.

In many respects, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for domestic workers. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a domestic worker who wouldn’t want her work to be formalized, and frankly, made visible,” says Erica Smiley, the executive director of Jobs With Justice, a nonprofit organization fighting for worker’s rights. “Because right now, it’s very much this invisible work.”

In this sense, there’s greater potential for organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance to work out deals, such as the one they have with, where there’s now a page that every new client has to go through that offers them the opportunity to basically make the good employer pledge. “You get directed to a page where it’s like, ‘Here’s this pledge, we encourage you to sign on to it,’” says Tilly. “And that’s something that NDWA negotiated with In fact, the formal agencies offer some interesting possibilities for collective action by domestic workers, with the National Domestic Workers Alliance being one example.” 

His point is that without a singular agency that a vast number of domestic workers report to, it’s difficult to mobilize millions and millions of individual households. It may then be the case that, in the long run, formalizing domestic work is going to bring greater levels of transparency, some accountability and contractual elements between the domestic worker and their employers, compared to what’s historically been a very informal arrangement.

But there are also plenty of reasons to be reluctant about formalizing domestic work, especially if the industry ends up being truly analogous to the situation with Uber and Lyft. “Do you trust Uber and Lyft to take care of their drivers?” Tilly says. “And certainly, thinking about that example, there’s been plenty of reasons not to trust Uber and Lyft.” Which is hardly an inflammatory statement: For years, Uber and Lyft have positioned their companies in such a way as to carefully avoid offering their drivers even the most basic employment protections. By leaving them as independent contractors or workers under the gig economy umbrella, Uber gets to avoid treating them as employees with actual employment benefits like minimum wage, overtime, health insurance or regularly scheduled breaks, per Market Watch

Other potential pitfalls include how quickly these agencies could potentially take away what little autonomy domestic workers like Sicilia currently have. “Introducing an agency into that calculation inherently is going to create an additional interest that may not be helpful,” says Smiley. Knowing what he knows about these agencies, Tilly tells me that because their survival is based on taking a margin on top of the fee, there are two scenarios for how this transition will likely play out: “Either the worker pays by earning less or the client pays by paying more. There’s no way out of that.” If the situation goes the same way as other sectors of the gig economy, it’s more than likely that it will be the domestic worker — whose median wage for in-home work is $10.21 per hour — who will bear the brunt of the financial burden.

Worse still, all of this assumes that these agencies will treat undocumented domestic workers the same way as those with documents, which according to Tilly is highly unlikely. He tells me that, in a post-pandemic era, undocumented domestic workers like Sicilia, who were once “small-scale entrepreneurs,” will likely have their way of conducting business — i.e., dealing directly with their clients — undermined by these agencies. “There are solutions, but I do think it’s likely that undocumented workers, on the whole, will be pushed more into a lower tier of the market, because they will be less able or willing to turn over a bunch of contact information,” he explains. 

The question, then, is what “lower tier” is there? How much more invisible can undocumented domestic workers get? 

The problem is, Sicilia — who tells me that she’s managed to convince a few of her clients to pay her now in exchange for future house-cleaning work — can’t afford to wait around to find out.