The Other Side of the Storm
What Do Black Immigrant Domestic Workers in the Time of Covid-19 Teach Us About Building a Resilient Care Infrastructure?
Kim Freeman Brown | Marc Bayard
Institute for Policy Studies | National Domestic Workers Alliance
Throughout the pandemic, Black immigrant workers have served on the frontlines, serving as a backbone to our economy.
The Other Side of the Storm is a follow-up to NDWA’s initial Notes from the Storm report, which examined the experiences of Black immigrant domestic workers in Miami, New York, and Massachusetts just as the pandemic hit in 2020. The Other Side of the Storm returned to these regions in 2021 and features data and anecdotes from surveys, focus groups, and interviews of more than 1,000 respondents.
The swift and devastating consequences of the global pandemic in the United States in early 2020 laid bare a number of irrefutable realities. First, while the pandemic affected everyone in America, its impact was more severe among low-income families, Black, Latinx, and other communities of color. Second, our physical survival and economic recovery from the increasingly frequent and severe public health and environmental and economic crises hinge not only on the strength of our physical infrastructure but on our human-based “care infrastructure” — doctors, nurses, first responders, and other essential workers like direct care and domestic workers.
In the early months of the pandemic, healthcare and other essential workers rightfully received media coverage and support for the role they played – often at life-threatening risk – to protect, care for and save the public. But there was one sector of this essential care infrastructure whose experiences went unnoticed: domestic workers. These essential workers are a vital and often invisible workforce within the healthcare and broader care economy. It is disproportionately composed of women of color and immigrants who care for the elderly, children, and people with disabilities and make work possible for those who must work away from home.
Before the pandemic, the majority of domestic workers had no healthcare or other benefits. They were largely not protected by workplace laws, and the most vulnerable among them – Black immigrant domestic workers – feared or could not access resources that were being offered to help individuals and families survive illness, job loss, potential eviction, and hunger.
Today, as the nation reports one million COVID-related deaths and inflation and care policy blocks make our already precarious supports strained, we have a better understanding of how deeply Black immigrant domestic workers are impacted and exploited during a global health and national economic crisis, and we have a clearer vision of what is needed to secure the safety and wellbeing of Black domestic workers and all working people.
- 37% of respondents reported having difficulty finding new work during the pandemic.
- 50% of respondents have to work in environments where they or others have COVID.
- In 2020, 65% feared eviction or disruption of utility services. By February 2021, 41% confirmed that their fears had actualized.
- 68% work without an employment contract, with undocumented workers more likely to work without one (80%).
- 78% have not received benefits from their employers, such as paid time off or paid medical or health insurance.
- 57% of survey respondents identified health insurance as the benefit they most desire.
Workers also anecdotally reported lack of employer flexibility, the deadly conditions they work in, and the need for health care for domestic workers.
The report also lists free childcare, pay for family caregivers, and a pathway to citizenship as other needs Black immigrant domestic workers have in order to make their jobs good careers.
The report recommends Congressional action, including increased investment in childcare and Medicaid’s home and community based-services, as well as the passage of the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to increase protections, raise standards, and provide benefits industry-wide.
New York, New York
The survey was conducted in February 2021 from the same pool of domestic workers invited to participate in the 2020 survey. Interviews were conducted in March 2022.
Three geographic areas:
New York City, the Greater Miami, Florida area, and Massachusetts, primarily in and around the city of Boston.
Eighty percent (80%) of survey respondents are Afro-Caribbean (56%) and African (24%). The remaining 20% of respondents identify as Afro-Latina (5%), mixed with Black (3%), Indo-Caribbean (3%) or did not disclose their race and/or ethnicity (9%).
New York City: 70% Afro-Caribbean, 9% African, 5% Mixed with Black, 5% Indo-Caribbean, 4% Afro-Latina
Massachusetts: 59% African, 32% Afro-Caribbean
Miami: 48% Afro-Caribbean, 27% Afro-Latina, 16% African
Nearly a quarter (23%) of survey respondents are undocumented and represented the single largest group by immigration status among all respondents. Naturalized citizens (20%) and legal permanent residents or green card holders (8%) were the second and third largest groups respectively. Twelve percent (12%) are in the U.S. on work permits or another authorized employment arrangement. Nearly a third of respondents (29%) did not disclose their immigration status (15%) or reported that none of the offered immigration status categories applied to them (14%).
New York City: 35% undocumented, 23% naturalized US citizens, 19% legal permanent residents/green card holders
Massachusetts: 22% undocumented, 23% naturalized US citizens, 28% have a work permit or employment authorization (most did not reveal)
Miami: 16% undocumented, 44% naturalized US citizens, 22% have a work permit or employment authorization (most did not reveal)
Difficulty finding new work.
“Two workers I know have died. One worker got COVID at work from her boss’s children. She was from Haiti and undocumented and didn’t have health insurance. She was afraid to go to the hospital and she died. We buried her.” — June, 58, elder care worker, NDWA Organizer, Miami, FL
“I was going to get a check up for COVID from my doctor. Appointments at the time were really hard to come by. My
employer wanted me to come back before my doctor’s appointment. I didn’t want to go from clinic to clinic, doctor to doctor.
I told them, ‘If you can’t wait for me, get another nanny. My health is important right now and I just couldn’t go back.”
— Anonymous Nanny, New York, NY
Thirty-seven percent (37%) of respondents said that they had difficulty finding a new job during the pandemic.
“I started off as a nanny and due to the pandemic and things not going the way I wanted to, I completed training as a newborn specialist, teaching mothers and birthing parents of color how to advocate for themselves because of the high mortality rate. I could do the course at home, so that’s what I did and that’s what I focus on now.” — Anonymous, 45 year old “out of status” former nanny, Queens, NY
New York City: 32%
Massachusetts: 18% (and 20% got a new job with lower pay and working conditions)
Risk of exposure in the workplace.
Fifty percent (50%) of respondents have to work in environments where they or others have COVID. Lack of paid time off and lack of health benefits force vulnerable workers to work while sick or around those who can make them sick.
New York City: 28%
Facing eviction and disruption in utility services.
In 2020, sixty-five percent (65%) of respondents feared eviction or disruption of utility services. In February 2021, forty-one percent (41%) of respondents confirmed that their fears had actualized and they were forced to move, faced eviction or disruption in utility services due to their inability to pay rent or other bills during the pandemic.
Here are numbers by location of Black domestic workers who experienced eviction or disruption of utility services in 2021:
New York City: 31%
Respondents expressed experiencing stress, nervousness and depression in response to the question, “How would you describe your emotional wellbeing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?”
New York City: stress and anxiety
Massachusetts: fear, sadness, discomfort, stress
Miami: stress, anxiety and depression
Over two-thirds of respondents (68%) work without an employment contract.
Additionally, eight percent (8%) of respondents don’t know whether or not they have a work contract or not, which makes them as vulnerable as those without a contract.
New York City: 67%
Undocumented workers are more likely to work without an employment contract
than their documented peers.
Undocumented workers without a contract: 80%
Documented workers without a contract: 61%
House cleaners are more likely to work without an employment contract
than other domestic workers.
House cleaner: 82%
Direct care: 61%
The majority of respondents (78%) have not received benefits from their employers
during the pandemic such as paid time off or paid medical or health insurance.
New York City: 69%
Overall, disaggregating by immigration status and industry reveals numbers that comport
with the preceding statistics. The most vulnerable groups here are undocumented
workers and house cleaners.
Direct care: 82%
House cleaner: 86%
Black immigrant domestic workers want and need health insurance.
“We should get some form of short health care; and, we shouldn’t have to come to work sick. Some people just do that. I could get your sickness and carry it home to my family. But you don’t want to give me time.” — Marlene, 76, semi-retired direct care provider for the elderly, New York, NY
Fifty-seven percent (57%) of survey respondents identified health insurance as the benefit they most desire.
“Domestic workers deserve to have the same privileges as other workers, like health insurance. A lot of us don’t have that. Everything others get in other professions like health care and paid time off, we should get the same thing.” — Barbara, 60, Nanny, Boston, MA
New York City: 56%
Caregivers want benefits that allow them to care for themselves and their families.
Respondents also see retirement benefits (46%) and paid sick leave and medical leave (44%) as benefits that would make their jobs better.
New York City: 56% retirement benefits, 49% paid sick leave and medical leave
Massachusetts: 43% retirement benefits, 49% paid sick leave and medical leave
Miami: 58% paid sick leave and medical leave, 57% paid time off
It took a global pandemic for our nation to realize that domestic workers and many other workers, largely in low-paid service jobs, overrepresented by immigrants, disproportionately women, and women of color are essential to our economy. Yet, domestic work is devalued, largely unprotected in the workplaces, and many continue to be excluded by core workplace laws and benefits at the federal and state levels. Undocumented workers experience greater vulnerability and exploitation due to their immigration status.
In the context of Covid-19, it is unacceptable that these essential workers who are
a part of the human infrastructure that makes the work of others possible and
ensures the strength and resiliency of our families and communities lack even the
most basic labor rights.
When survey respondents were asked what they needed and wanted to make domestic work a good job, they named the following:
1. Raise the wages for home healthcare and childcare workers across the country.
2. Provide free childcare for working families.
3. Provide free healthcare for anyone who cannot afford it.
4. Pay family caregivers who take care of a relative full-time.
5. Create a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants.
It is time to provide all domestic workers a path out of the storm that has been battering these essential workers with racial, gender, and economic injustices since long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Black immigrant domestic workers have been in the eye of this storm.
These survey responses affirm the need for Congress to act to invest in child care, Medicaid’s home and community-based services (HCBS), and other health care initiatives. The investment in HCBS would raise wages and standards for home care workers, enable unpaid caregivers to be compensated for their labor, and expand services to people with disabilities and older adults.
It is time for Congress to act to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to increase protections, raise standards, and provide benefits as respondents reported a lack of written contracts and lack of paid time off.
Lastly, respondents underscored the importance of creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which we know is critical for transforming care jobs into good jobs and for Black immigrant domestic workers to achieve economic security.
Shoring up protections for Black immigrant domestic workers and domestic workers more broadly is about strengthening a care infrastructure that will ensure that all of our families make it to the other side of the storm.