'Replaceable': Household help are left unpaid during coronavirus pandemic

We invited them into our houses, asking them to keep our homes comfortable and our children safe. They vacuum our bedrooms, sing to our babies, and keep our elderly relatives company. 

But as the coronavirus pandemic forces everyone indoors, many of America’s nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers have become strangers to their employers — left without pay or paid time off.

“I already live below the poverty line. I'm on food stamps and Medicaid and it’s still very hard to pay my bills,” said Ms. Foster, a housekeeper who regularly has five weekly cleaning jobs in New York, but only two have paid her during the outbreak.

“Even with the rent eviction moratorium, I can't afford to get three months behind,” she said, requesting to go by her last name only because she’s afraid she won’t be able to get more work in the future.

Many of the more than 2.5 million domestic workers in the U.S. are finding themselves suddenly unpaid during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Getty Creative)

‘The well-worn path of inequality’

Ms. Foster is among the more than 2.5 million domestic workers in the U.S., according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. 

Seven in 10 domestic workers are paid less than $13 an hour and nearly the same number are uninsured. Domestic workers struggle to meet basic financial needs in regular times, according to a report by NDWA. Three in 5 spend more than half of their income on housing and 2 in 5 paid essential bills late, the report found.

Read more: What to do before you lose your job

The NDWA has even created a donation drive to help those workers facing job insecurity, lack of healthcare and paid sick days.  

“The coronavirus pandemic will travel the well-worn path of inequality,” said Julie Kashen, senior policy advisor at NDWA. “We are already seeing that low wage workers like domestic workers are hit the hardest.”

‘Nannies are viewed as replaceable’

What makes the situation even worse is that many laid-off domestic workers are finding it harder to get another job because so many are unemployed and going for the same limited positions.

“Unfortunately, nannies are viewed as replaceable,” said Elizabeth Malson, executive director of the U.S. Nanny Association. “So they'll let nannies go for three or four months and then just hire another one when the pandemic ends, and it will be hundreds of thousands of nannies ready to take those new jobs.”

Many states in the U.S. consider nannies as essential workers. (Photo: Getty Creative)

This appears to be the case for Kim, 37, who’s been a nanny for 20 years in Chicago, but had to take some days off because her son’s school closed. She asked to not use her full name because she’s afraid she may lose her current job.

“I was supposed to work that Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and I had to ask for two weeks off because I had to stay with my son,” Kim said. 

Her employers who remained working were understanding in the beginning and expected her to come back, but she hasn’t heard from them in two weeks and hasn’t been paid for that time. She’s not sure if she’s been let go or placed on furlough.

Essential workers

Malson said that her organization is asking any family that is still employed and working from home to keep up the employment for a nanny or sitter.

“I have texted and emailed several times. I asked to use my paid vacation time for the next three weeks and then we could reassess the last week of April,” Kim said. “No response whatsoever.”

Fortunately, her husband is able to still work from home, so they have some income coming in. But they had to put their plans to buy a home on hold and only set aside any savings for emergencies only.

Seven in 10 domestic workers are paid below $13 an hour and nearly the same number are uninsured. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Many states in the U.S. consider nannies as essential workers, including Illinois where Kim works.

“I keep seeing all these things about thanking the essential workers like delivery drivers and restaurant workers, nurses,” Kim said. “Nobody is realizing that caregivers are also making work possible. Without the nanny to come and watch the children, the doctors would not be able to go to work.

‘Relying on the kindness of strangers’

Ms. Foster said that the $1,200 stimulus check that the government is sending Americans won't make much of a difference for her because, “it’s not enough and it’s not recurring.”

A single mom in New York, she also works as a booking agent for musicians, which has been put on hold, too, with no pay. Her landlords have been very understanding of April’s rent, but she still has utilities and car insurance to pay. She filed for unemployment benefits, which is pending.

Read more: Here’s what to do if you can’t pay rent

“I've been having a panic attack for a week or more that won't go away,” Ms. Foster said. “It makes me feel very emotional and scared.”

Despite her financially precarious position, Ms. Foster doesn’t expect her clients to pay her because they may be facing their own hardships, too. Instead, financial help is coming from unexpected corners for Ms. Foster.

“People on Twitter have sent me some money and helped me, which is so nice,” Ms. Foster said. “At this moment, I’m relying on the kindness of strangers.” 

Denitsa is a writer for Yahoo Finance and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @denitsa_tsekova.

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