Being Low Wage in Covid-19

Life as an essential worker

The Covid-19 pandemic is real and its effects will be long lasting; leaving no community, no family, no individual untouched by its impact.

We’re often told that we’re all in this together—but our experience of Covid-19 is not the same. The stark evidence of inequalities that exist within our system has never been clearer. Communities made vulnerable by systemic failures and discrimination face higher barriers and challenges to accessing healthcare and essential services. If there was ever a moment to pause, listen and demand justice and dignity for all, it’s now.

Rosana Araujo, member of Women Working Together USA and National Domestic Workers Alliance, shares her insight on being low wage in Covid-19. To learn more about Rosana and her work, follow @womenworkingtogetherusa and @domesticworkers.

Being low-wage in Covid-19: Life as an essential worker

I remember exactly the moment only a few weeks ago when I realized I was reliving the past. I was standing in line at the grocery store trying to decide what I should buy—chicken or beef—because I couldn’t afford both like my son asked for. I remembered having to make these exact decisions 20 years ago in Uruguay before I fled to escape the banking crisis. I never expected to find myself facing these kinds of decisions again, especially not in the United States. And this time, working as a domestic worker in the US during the coronavirus, these hard times are much, much harder.

I’ve been working as a housecleaner in Miami for 19 years. I clean several homes each week, mostly apartments. At the beginning of March, one by one my clients called to tell me they were worried about the coronavirus and asked me not to come. I quickly had no clients left. As a housecleaner with multiple clients, I don’t receive any paid time off. If I get sick or need time off, I lose income. As the virus started to spread throughout the country, none of my clients offered to continue to pay if I wasn’t cleaning for them. So, I suddenly found myself without any income for rent, for utilities or for food. Just like in Uruguay, 20 years ago.

But this time, it’s worse. In Uruguay, I was an art and anthropology professor before the financial crisis: I was visible, my work was respected and I was receiving a paycheck that enabled me to support myself before the country’s economic crisis. When I fled to the United States, I took jobs cleaning homes to make a living. Here my work is invisible, poverty-wage and without the dignity and respect deserving of the work that makes all work possible, even before coronavirus.

There are close to 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States. We are the nannies who take care of children so their parents can work outside the home. We are the home care workers who keep older and disabled loved ones safe and comfortable at home so they can live independent lives. And we are the house cleaners—like me—who clean and sanitize homes. We do the work left behind in the home and our work has become even more important during the coronavirus pandemic: we are all spending more time at home as more and more people are staying home to practice social distancing.

But as a domestic worker, I don’t have most of the same worker’s rights and protections that other workers have. Domestic work has historically been seen as women’s work, rather than “real” or professional work, which has led to the low and poverty-level wages that domestic workers continue to receive today. Some of the first domestic workers in the US were enslaved Black women and domestic workers were specifically written out of workplace laws passed in the 1930s that most workers are familiar with today. Today, our workforce is over 90% women, the majority are women of color and immigrants.

The median hourly wage for a domestic worker is below $11 and close to a quarter of domestic workers live in poverty. We continue to work in the shadows of the economy, behind the closed doors of private homes, at a higher risk of harassment, abuse and even assault, even as we do the work that is critical to this economy and society.

Rosana in Washington, D.C. with the National Domestic Workers Alliance advocating for stronger protections against sexual harassment at work for women in the domestic worker sector.

Members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance protest in Washington, D.C.

This is why I have been a domestic worker leader since 2008, organizing domestic workers to educate them about their rights and connect them with other workers. I’ve also worked on initiatives to improve workplace conditions for domestic workers with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), an alliance of affiliate domestic workers organizations across the country and the leading voice for domestic workers in the US. When NDWA realized the economic impact the coronavirus was going to have on domestic workers, they launched the Coronavirus Care Fund to provide $400 in emergency assistance for domestic workers experiencing financial hardship and have raised over $19 million dollars for domestic workers through the fund.

While we are weathering the virus, it has affected domestic workers disproportionately. Due to the nature of our work, we can’t work from home. We don’t know when we will be able to work again and many of us are struggling to put food on the table for our families. Many of us are undocumented immigrants and being written out of most government stimulus making many of us forced to make the difficult decision of going to work and putting ourselves and our loved ones’ health at risk or losing the income we need to provide for our families. Our work has always been essential, but it is even more essential now that we need to take care of each other even more than before. Together, we can—and must—take care of each other better.


Rosana Araujo, member at Women Working Together USA @womenworkingtogetherusa and National Domestic Workers Alliance @domesticworkers

Hear their stories, support and take action. Donate here.

This article is part of a series on Covid-19 in communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Explore the rest of the stories here.

Rosana Araujo, member of Women Working Together USA and National Domestic Workers Alliance.