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‘Every day is a fresh hell’ for undocumented domestic workers in a world turned upside down by coronavirus

“Supposedly I was part of the family, but obviously I’m not,” Maria del Carmen Diaz, an undocumented domestic worker says. She, and others, say they have lost work and paid taxes, but don’t qualify for unemployment, government benefits, or bailout.

Maria del Carmen Diaz outside her home in Philadelphia. A house cleaner and nanny, all of her clients told her not to come to their homes. Some said they were scared she'd bring the coronavirus into their homes because she takes public transportation.
Maria del Carmen Diaz outside her home in Philadelphia. A house cleaner and nanny, all of her clients told her not to come to their homes. Some said they were scared she'd bring the coronavirus into their homes because she takes public transportation.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

They were supposed to be like family. But they broke up — for now at least — by text.

Ping. Ping. Ping. The messages popped up on Maria del Carmen Diaz’s phone, one after the other. All worded similarly: “Don’t come to work because of the coronavirus. Stay home. … We’re home and can’t go to work. … When this passes, we’ll see what happens.”

Within the span of just a few days last month, del Carmen Diaz, 54, lost all 25 of her cleaning and nanny jobs. She’d worked for most of the families for more than 20 years, one generation after the other, ever since she came to Philadelphia from Veracruz in Mexico.

For 60 to 70 hours a week, she scrubbed their toilets, tubs, and floors. Laundered and ironed clothes. Cooked meals. Took care of their children, and their frail, elderly relatives. Even made piñatas for kids’ parties. To travel from house to house, mostly throughout West Philadelphia, she took trolleys, trains, and buses.

“Some employers told me because I take public transportation, I could bring the virus to their home,” she said through a translator.

“I felt humiliated, like I’m not worth anything,” she said.

There are about 16,000 domestic workers in Philadelphia, many of whom, like del Carmen Diaz, are undocumented immigrants. She earned about $1,000 a week. She pays taxes, but because of her immigration status, she doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits, even under the new $2 trillion coronavirus economic rescue package.

Her husband works as a cook, a few blocks from their home near the Philadelphia Zoo. But his hours were stripped from 15 a day to six.

» READ MORE: ‘I feel like I’ve been benched’: For 9 people in the Philadelphia region, this is what it means to be jobless during the pandemic

Five of her 25 employers paid her for the month of March. "I don't know how long that will last," she said.

“It hurts,” she said. “Supposedly I was part of the family, but obviously I’m not.”

Del Carmen Diaz has two grown children and a 19-year-old son who is attending Drexel University.

“I’m trying not to be stressed, but it’s very difficult,” she said. “I hadn’t anticipated this happening. I have to keep a close eye on the budget. I have to pay for my son’s college. It’s just very hard."

To save money, she's buying cheaper, canned and processed foods.

"I wake up later so I eat less," she said.

Betania Shephard, 33, of Northeast Philadelphia, lost the majority of her cleaning jobs, too. She has only kept one or two jobs cleaning Airbnbs. She anticipates those jobs will disappear fast. “It’s all because of corona," she said through a translator. "They need to be safe and be in their homes.”

One client paid her in full for the month of March. “He insisted on doing it,” she said, recalling that he told her: “The money is yours. I was the one who canceled your job.”

Shephard has been a domestic worker for five years. She came alone to the United States from the Dominican Republic 12 years ago when she was 21. She is now a married mother of two children, ages 11 and 8. Her husband, who does construction, has been without work for almost a month.

Both are undocumented. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do," she said. "I’m working. I follow the law. I pay taxes like everyone else. I keep my neighborhood clean. It doesn’t make sense that we don’t qualify [for help]. We do everything that every other citizen does.”

» READ MORE: A Philly day-care owner laid off 100 people because of the coronavirus: ‘It was the worst day of my life’

Now, she worries more each day. “The bills don’t stop just because I’m not working,” she said. She opened her utility bill and felt sick. Then there’s the car payment and the $950 rent. She has asked for extensions.

“We don’t leave our house," she said. "All I’m spending money on is food and water.”

Nicole Kligerman, director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance (PDWA), said she was saddened by how abruptly so many employers of housekeepers and nannies said goodbye without any thought of how their longtime employees would survive.

“They discarded them so quickly,” she said. “It’s really egregious.”

The average annual income for domestic workers in the Philadelphia metropolitan area in 2016 was $10,000, according to an analysis by Pilar Goñalons-Pons, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

The PDWA organized in 2018 with a goal of expanding labor protections and improving working conditions.

“The biggest issues are around the arbitrary and unprotected nature of the job,” Kligerman said. “They’re given more work without more pay. There is no clear job responsibility. They can be canceled on a whim after taking three buses, carrying all their cleaning materials. And they’re told, ‘I don’t need you today,’ through the door. There’s such disrespect for the work.”

Kligerman, Shephard, and del Carmen Diaz, along with other group organizers, wrote what has been dubbed the Philadelphia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. After a tireless yearlong effort, the groundbreaking legislation was passed in late 2019, with unanimous support from the Philadelphia City Council and from Mayor Jim Kenney.

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The measure requires that employers have a written agreement outlining employment terms, pay rates, schedules, and benefits, including mandatory rest and meal breaks. Workers would accrue paid leave and sick days, even if they have multiple employers who would contribute into a benefits system. Employers must also provide two weeks’ notice before terminating an employment contract — and four weeks if the worker lives inside the home — except in cases of significant misconduct.

The law won’t take effect until May 1.

“We won this amazing law, but it’s coming too late,” Kligerman said. “It would have helped these workers brave this crisis.”

“Even if people get their rent payment delayed, it’s not rent forgiveness," Kligerman said. "They will not be able to work, but may owe thousands in rent. People have to choose between food and saving for rent. There are lots of single mothers who are domestic workers. And they don’t know when they will be rehired.”

“It’s desperate out there,” she added. “Every day is a fresh hell.”