Dynamics of employing household help during COVID-19 quarantine

I’ve attached two separate articles about the very first-world questions about the relationship between employer and housekeeper who doesn’t live in during the COVID-19 isolation.

First, I found this op/ed an excellent reminder to look at decisions from all sides, not just from the perspective of personal convenience, or even need. In my case, I was scared to have anyone come to my apt after I was told to stay home all the time as a member of multiple vulnerable categories. Of course, I thought of the economic loss for my housekeeper if I didn’t have her come, but there’s more to consider. Just paying her for missed visits avoided the health issues but simply deferred them.

Now I’ve discovered that I need to have cleaning help in order to breathe. I’ve had no exposure to COVID-19, but the trip between her home and mine exposes her to risk. That means that helping me could affect her three children and husband if anything if anything happens. Maybe divorcing the decision from economic need, as I have, helps but every “necessary worker” faces impossible choices.

MISSOULA, Mont. — This past week of coronavirus chaos brought a familiar feeling: a moment of confusion and weightlessness — then an immediate fall, like a cartoon character who ran out of solid road.

As a single mother for 10 years, I brought in around $12,000 annually. I mainly worked as a house cleaner just north of Seattle, while I put myself through college. Financial security, even if it meant $20 left after paying bills, was out of reach. We always seemed to run out of money before we ran out of days in the month.

I’m far beyond those years of domestic work, but since my memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive” was published last year, I became known for them. People often approach me with questions, and it has amazed me how many, in hushed tones, ask how much they should pay their own house cleaner.

Over the last few days I’ve received emails and direct messages asking for my advice on how, in light of the novel coronavirus, to approach canceling their house cleaner. Should they blame social distancing and empathetically wish them the best? Absolutely not.

As their private employer, pay the person who works in your home at their full, usual rate for any missed hours. If you can’t get over the “no work, no pay” mind-set, think of it as an accrued benefit like paid leave, sick pay, or vacation days. They are probably overdue.

Most importantly, remember that the estimated 2.5 million domestic workers in this country are an invisible, undervalued population. Those who work in our homes are human beings who, in the face of Covid-19, have no child care, no income and will probably face severe housing insecurity in the months to come.

Though I worked both for a cleaning company and for private clients, my job offered no benefits. If my car broke down, my back went out, my kid was too sick for day care, or if a client canceled their cleaning, I had no savings or paid leave to cover lost wages.

Unexpected expenses or loss of income, even $20, all mattered. I shuffled expenses to figure out what bills could be paid and which ones could be put off. Rent for our studio apartmentalways went first, then the electric bill, then payments on credit cards.

On the rare occasion I called off work, I did it in fear of being fired. I didn’t have the ability to speak up, say no or protest for fear of losing a job that, after applying to countless diners, coffee shops and offices, was my only option. I begged both my boss and my manager to let me work more. They only considered me for extra hours if I had a near-perfect record of attendance.

As a low-income worker, my take-home pay, at best, was about $200 a week. I received assistance from the government for food, child care and utilities. They call these programs safety nets, but they’re more like rickety life rafts to keep you barely afloat.

For many domestic workers with children older than 6 who rely on government assistance like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps) it is vital for them to work 30 hours a week. Without meeting those hours, they risk losing that benefit for as long as three years.

It’s unreasonable to expect people who scrape to get by to have emergency savings. For one, if they’re on SNAP or similar programs, in some states their total assets cannot be more than a few thousand dollars. Whenever I tried to save money during those years it was immediately gone, to make up for lost work hours or even to purchase something as small as a new kitchen sponge.

I stopped trying and spent the extra five bucks on a treat for my kid instead: a package of raspberries or a Happy Meal. There was no investment in the future because the future was unimaginable. There is no planning in a life of fighting to keep a roof over your head. It’s pure survival.

Low-income workers — whose main job is to make our lives easier — now face a life a hundred times harder without the stability of income. Losing even two weeks of work means unpaid rent, a car without gas and the type of hunger that gnaws at you more than the worst kind of stress.

Social distancing is forcing us to make decisions that go against our capitalistic nature: to cut back. Remember who this affects the most — the hourly wage workers who have no option to work remotely, no safety nets and, still, families to feed. We already have more than 11 million children who are food insecure, and that’s about to get a lot worse. Do your part to help.


Here is a more pointed response to the very first world issue of whether or not your prior household arrangements should/can continue during the shut-down period. I’m appalled by the attitude of this employeer toward her housekeeper — both labeling her as Mexican and assuming the risk of infection only goes one way — but know it’s not uncommon, even if oblivious.

I’ve omitted the portion of the article setting Gay up for her new column answering similar questions as I think it’s more important to go straight to the Q&A.

Is It Safe to Keep Employing a Cleaner? Wrong Question, Lady

Roxane Gay

By Roxane Gay

  • May 29, 2020 [early part of article related to future columns omitted[

I have a wonderful cleaning lady (from Mexico) who comes twice a month to my condo. Maria is about 40 and is raising two young children, plus she has a large extended family. She may be in contact with many people in her family and work settings.

My question: Is it safe to keep employing her? I am home when she cleans, so I stay in the guest bedroom/office with the door closed. After she leaves, I use sanitizing wipes on counters, door knobs, toilet handles, etc. to remove any remaining bacteria from items she has touched. I leave her check out and I don’t stand close to her when we speak.

Maria and her sister live across town in a high Covid-19 suburb. Her ZIP code has the highest number of cases in this region (71), as of May 5, according to the state. My ZIP code has 32 cases.

Many other people have canceled her services, so I know Maria needs the work.

— Anonymous, Oregon

You are asking the wrong questions, which is callous at best. You should be asking if it is safe for Maria to be around you. Do you keep your home properly sanitized so she won’t contract Covid-19 when she is working? Do you wear a mask when speaking to her so you don’t infect her? Do you provide her with personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and disinfectant wipes to ensure her safety as she works on your behalf and imperils herself and her young children?

You seem to be proud of how fastidious you are in cleaning surfaces Maria has just cleaned without any consideration for her well-being. Maria does not need the work she does for you and her other clients. She needs the money you pay for her labor. No, you cannot safely continue to have her clean your condo, because you cannot guarantee that you will not infect her. She has no way of knowing how rigorous you are being with your social distancing — although I am sure she has a crystal-clear sense of your hygiene.

This pandemic has revealed just how pronounced the class fractures in our society are. You’re worrying about getting sick from your “wonderful” cleaning lady while she is probably worrying about how to support her family while staying safe and healthy. She is probably dealing with what millions of Americans are facing right now: They can choose to support their family or they can stay safe and healthy, but they cannot afford to do both. This state of affairs is a national disgrace. It is your privilege that shapes what you get to worry about and it is a lack of privilege that shapes what she must worry about.

I really want you to consider the mental gymnastics you’ve performed trying to convince yourself it is safe to maintain your lifestyle as you prefer. You have looked up actual statistics. You can see, plainly, that Maria is at risk, but you’re only worried about yourself. Now, you have every right to be worried about your health. And you may be someone who cannot clean her own home for one reason or another, in which case this is an essential rather than a luxury service, and you have to weigh the risks of exposure for both you and Maria against your personal circumstances.

But many people’s professional and personal lives are possible only because of the house cleaners, assistants, nannies and other domestic workers who do the work we tell ourselves we don’t have time to do. There is no shame in that if you are paying an ethical wage and treating people with the respect and dignity they deserve. There is no shame in that if you acknowledge that you are not, in fact, doing it all, but instead have a robust support system that contributes to your well-being. What is shameful is how people who perform what many consider to be essential work have been so readily abandoned.

Here we are. During this time of Covid-19, part of treating people with respect and dignity is making sure the individuals who make your lifestyle possible are still being paid, whether they are physically working for you or not. If you could afford domestic support before the pandemic, you can afford it now, if you haven’t lost your income.

You have the opportunity to do the right thing here. Pay Maria what you would normally pay her for as long as the self-isolation lasts, without requiring her to come to your home and endanger herself. If you insist that Maria work during the pandemic, and if she is willing (or has no choice but) to take on that risk, then double her pay, provide her with P.P.E., wear a mask and gloves when she is in your home so you do not infect her, and tip generously every single time she works.

Finally, why do you mention that Maria is from Mexico? In addition to everything I’ve suggested, you should also take some time to sit and contemplate your economic privilege and the touch of xenophobia implied by your question. I send Maria my warmest regards and sincerely hope she is happy and healthy during such a challenging time.

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at workfriend@nytimes.com.

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