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An undocumented house cleaner loses her job in Philly, but finds her mission

Altagracia Maria Herrera is an undocumented house cleaner who was excluded from most government aid, making the pandemic the first time she felt she didn’t belong in the United States.

Altagracia María Herrera poses for a portrait outside of her home in Northeast Philadelphia on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. Herrera is an undocumented house cleaner who lost all her work during the pandemic.
Altagracia María Herrera poses for a portrait outside of her home in Northeast Philadelphia on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. Herrera is an undocumented house cleaner who lost all her work during the pandemic.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

One night, as the pandemic shut Philadelphia down last March, Altagracia María Herrera, who cleans houses for a living, answered her phone.

It was one of her employers, who, in broken Spanish, told her to stay home for the next few weeks, Herrera recalled.

“I understand,” responded Herrera, who was born in the Dominican Republic, lives in Northeast Philadelphia, and is a single parent to two U.S.-born daughters.

Then, over a few days, all her other cleaning jobs evaporated. Herrera had just enough saved to make her $750 rent. “After that, there was no money,” she said. As an undocumented immigrant, she didn’t qualify for relief from Washington — no stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, or ongoing salary funded by Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“For the first time in my life, I had no idea what to do,” Herrera, 50, said.

If the pandemic has brought disaster unevenly to many groups of Americans, for undocumented immigrants, it has brought unmitigated calamity. They have the most unstable jobs. They are among the least likely to have health insurance, like Herrera who is uninsured. While there is little data on deaths from the virus and immigration status, Latinos have been almost three times as likely to die from the virus as whites. And undocumented immigrants have been ineligible for federal aid.

An informal survey in March and April of 1,261 people by Puentes de Salud, a clinic in the Graduate Hospital area that serves undocumented immigrants, found 96% of surveyed families had experienced job loss — either complete job loss or a reduction in hours. About half of families had lost all sources of income.

The Federal Reserve found that nationally, nearly 40% of low-wage workers had lost their jobs, as had 13% of workers earning more than $100,000.

Many undocumented domestic workers like Herrera have felt abandoned, advocates said.

“Think about it this way: We are in all of your intimate places,” said María del Carmen Díaz, 55, a domestic worker active in the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a labor organizing group. “We touch your pillow, we touch your sheets, we touch your underwear. Why don’t you think of us?”

» READ MORE: Workers have been fighting for stronger protections for years. COVID-19 made their struggles more dire.

Struggle was nothing new to Herrera. Born in the central Dominican Republic, she was the only one of five siblings to attend university, where she studied accounting. Many days, she didn’t have money for lunch or the bus.

“I’ve always had that ideal of struggling to push forward,” she said. “I wanted more.”

In 2000, she followed her dream of a better life and joined a friend in Philadelphia. She got a job as a waitress in a North Philadelphia Dominican restaurant. Then she got pregnant.

When she arrived at Temple University Hospital to give birth, a nurse asked, “Who’s with you?”

“I’m totally alone,” she said.

Mostly alone, she raised her daughter, Marielis, and a second daughter, Elismaris Pérez, born two years later.

When the pandemic began, Herrera lost all five of her regular cleaning clients and pay of at least $650 a week. One employer said she had lost her job, and in a kind of trickle-down unemployment, could no longer pay Herrera.

Across Philadelphia, the same thing happened to workers throughout the service industries that suddenly shut down — waiters, hotel cleaners, store clerks — disproportionately wiping out employment for women of color. Low-wage workers who kept their jobs rarely had the option to work from home.

Herrera was excited to spend time with her daughters, then 15 and 17 — but also scared. Would they have enough food? If she couldn’t make rent, would they lose their small, bright, two-bedroom apartment?

During the first weeks of the health emergency, the neighborhood seemed eerily quiet, with almost no traffic on nearby Roosevelt Boulevard. Herrera and her kids would sit on the grass outside their apartment building and not see anybody.

“I sometimes felt invisible,” Herrera said.

When she heard news about stimulus checks, Marielis asked her mother to sign up. Herrera said the government didn’t count her as eligible. “I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t count?’” said Marielis. “Are you serious? Really?”

On April 5, Herrera paid her rent, leaving less than $50 in her Wells Fargo account, she said.

The girls had started online classes with school laptops at the home of a friend who had internet. Herrera had nothing to occupy her. “I felt useless,” she said. “In my 21 years in this country, I’ve never felt so impotent.”

Marielis noticed her lively, energetic mother was sapped. “My mom, I think she’s broken,” Marielis said.

The financial pressure mounted. Wells Fargo assessed Herrera a $10 fee because of her low balance. Marielis called the bank, pressed 9 to be transferred to someone who speaks Spanish, and passed the phone to her mother. “How can you take $10 from my account?” Herrera demanded — that would buy groceries. The fee was canceled. Then it happened again.

Marielis put her faith in God. “Some days, I was like, ‘God, it’s time. It’s getting late,’” she said.

Previously, Herrera had cooked for homeless people through her church. Now, she would open her door to find church members had left milk and eggs. “It was very beautiful because I don’t have family in this country,” Herrera said.

It also made her feel vulnerable — she was used to helping others, not accepting aid. Some days the gifts would make her cry.

Another friend, Rosa López, 54 — also unemployed because the salon where she worked closed — told Herrera she was delivering food to a whole circle of their friends who had lost their jobs.

“I said, ‘Let me go with you,’” Herrera said. “It felt amazing to be useful.”

Still, she had no idea what to do about May rent. She wondered if the lights would go out because she hadn’t paid her Peco bill.

She also worried about her mother in the Dominican Republic. Herrera had bought her a house and each month paid for her food, utilities, phone, and diabetes medicine. For the first time in two decades, she could not send money.

Before this experience, Herrera had always felt a part of this country, she said: She was working, connected, contributing. “That changed,” she said. “I now feel outside of the country where I live.”

It was her friends who saved her. One friend made her an incredibly generous offer, Herrera said: She would get a job as an online grocery shopper and give Herrera the proceeds. She earned $300 toward Herrera’s rent.

Then Herrera got a call from an acquaintance, Díaz, a fellow domestic worker whom she had once met at a party.

Díaz worked with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the group was organizing ways to help the 16,000 domestic workers in Philadelphia.

The alliance gave Herrera a $400 debit card, as part of its assistance to thousands of domestic workers nationwide. It arrived in time for Herrera’s May rent.

“I felt like I had been found in the desert,” Herrera said.

She joined the alliance’s biweekly Wednesday night Zoom meetings, where people shared personal hardships and found ways to help.

While it was saddening to take in the extent of the devastation, Herrera was also bolstered to see that her problems were not hers individually: an entire class of people had been pummeled by the pandemic.

“Through the alliance, I can fight for myself and I can fight for others,” she said. “Especially people who are really scared.”

The alliance was functioning like an HR department, providing the standard pandemic logistical and mental health support over Zoom — bilingually, to people without other ways of accessing them.

In May, Herrera said, a friend referred her to a cleaning job with a new client in Northeast Philly.

“I was really scared because of the virus,” she said. Afterward, she took off her shoes outside her apartment, walked straight to the bathroom, stripped, put her clothes in a plastic bag, and hopped into the shower. The $125 she earned felt like a million dollars.

As municipalities across the country scrambled to fill gaps in federal aid, the alliance lobbied the City of Philadelphia for financial help. The Philadelphia Worker Relief Fund eventually distributed $800 payments to 2,162 residents left out of other aid — including Herrera.

“It has become increasingly clear that the restrictions placed on many resources prevent those who have greatest need from accessing them,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. The city is building another fund to lift 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty over the next five years — and that fund will include undocumented immigrants, said Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

Over the winter, Herrera joined the leadership steering committee of the alliance and organized an event at Houseman Playground to distribute masks, gloves, and alcohol wipes to domestic workers.

On a Wednesday night earlier this month, Herrera was among 57 domestic workers at a Zoom meeting of the alliance.

Domestic workers had been lobbying for a pathway to vaccination to overcome barriers including technology, language, and fear about immigration status. Nicole Kligerman, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the alliance, announced that workers would be able to sign up that very evening for a vaccination appointment.

Days later, Herrera exposed her left upper arm to the jab of a needle. Later that day, she got a new cleaning job.

The vaccination was a light showing the way to the end of the pandemic — work, she hoped, would follow. “I’m feeling more confident in work — and in everything.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.