By Sasha Abramsky* – The Nation
“Immigrant workers give life, give a pulse, to our economy. We need to be taken into account.”
“I don’t have work right now. There is no work. I’ve been looking, but there’s no work out there,” says Ana, a 53-year-old garment worker in Los Angeles, who migrated from Mexico City just over 30 years ago. Then Ana, her brown hair flecked with gray and pulled back tightly in a bun, her tired eyes slightly watery behind oversized, brown-plastic-rimmed glasses, corrects herself. There’s work in supermarkets, she says softly, but when she applies, the first things they ask her for are her documents, her work permits. Since she is undocumented, these jobs are off-limits.
Thirty years ago, Ana remembers, she earned about $250 a week in the garment factories. Today, she still takes home about $250 a week in under-the-table earnings, but in the interim, “the cost of rent and so on has gone up.” Her family’s expectations of the American Dream have been curtailed. “We’ve learned to be frugal in this country. We’ve always had a pantry with dried goods—rice and beans. We eat the basics, nothing luxurious.”
These days, even the basics are a luxury. Ana’s husband, a construction worker, is still able to get some work, but only a little; and their adult children try to give them some assistance—but they are also struggling. Since they’re undocumented, the couple are ineligible for unemployment benefits. They cannot get food stamps, and the only health assistance they can receive is emergency Medi-Cal. Other than that, they are on their own. As a result, Ana and her husband have burned through their meager life savings since stay-in-place orders were put in place in mid-March to try to limit the spread of Covid-19. As the months without work continue, they worry about how to pay their bills come summer. While Governor Gavin Newsom has, by executive order, extended the deadline to give tenants more time to respond to eviction proceedings, he has not prevented new evictions from being filed; after that order expires, the back-rent will still have to be accounted for.
Four hundred miles north, Lourdes, a 54-year old housecleaner and home care worker and a member of the activist organization La Colectiva de Mujeres in San Francisco, is going through the same experience. Until March, she was cleaning 15 homes a week and taking care of two older women in their homes. Since then, all her employers, scared that she will unknowingly bring the virus into their houses, have stopped using her services. “I’ve lost all the sources of income that I had,” says Lourdes angrily. “I don’t have savings. I’m not eligible for any kind of benefits, or for Trump’s relief funds. My savings have all been spent on food. I’m worried about how I’m going to pay rent, the phone bill, and other things.”
Lourdes has four children. Her 24-year-old daughter is also out of work, and her son has a brain fissure and cannot work. But even though the child is a citizen, Lourdes is terrified of applying for benefits for him, fearful that, in this xenophobic era of immigration raids and mass deportations, it will draw the attention of ICE.
Undocumented workers tend to cluster in certain industries. In California’s cities, garment and domestic workers are disproportionately likely to be undocumented. In rural areas, many farm workers also lack legal status.
Notwithstanding the Golden State’s increasingly progressive record on workers’ rights and labor law, and notwithstanding the immigrant-friendly political climate that has emerged in the state over the past several years, in practice these men and women—from Mexico, from Central America, from the Philippines and elsewhere—are among the most exploited laborers in the United States.
Those working in private homes are excluded from the workplace protections of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), explains Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center, in Sonoma County. Lubin, who wears colorful embroidered blouses and jeans to her small wooden office surrounded by lush trees, explains that there is currently no requirement for homeowners to provide those who work in their houses with N-95 masks, gloves, or other personal protective equipment. Many of those who work in private homes are paid low wages; those who work in sweatshops are paid abysmally. Garment workers, to take one example, receive piece rates that amount to far below minimum wage. Most of the workers I talked with earned less than $400 for a 56-hour work week; most, despite working six-day weeks, earned closer to $300. Some, like 26-year-old Paulina, who left Guatemala as a child and who lives with eight other family members in one bedroom, said that when she first started working, she sometimes earned as little as $100, despite putting in 11-hour days. None had paid sick leave or health benefits. Many were terrified of ICE agents and deportation and were desperate to stay under the radar.
“Most of our members are undocumented,” explains Lee Plaza, of the Pilipino Workers’ Center (PWC) in LA. “They work as home care workers, and those who are out of jobs right now are suffering lost wages. We’re excluded from regular unemployment laws, paid time off, and other benefits.” Plaza herself, after living for years without legal status, recently received asylum; but because of the new “public charge” rules that were pushed through at the urging of Trump’s hard-line immigration adviser Stephen Miller, even she is scared of applying for government benefits, worried that any involvement with state assistance will make her vulnerable to deportation.
Plaza, 60, recently had to move out of the apartment she shares with several other home care workers after she and a couple of colleagues who were exposed to Covid-19 while working with clients were, as a precautionary measure, urged to self-quarantine. They are currently living in a small Airbnb the PWC is paying for. Plaza says she tested negative, but she isn’t convinced the result was right; in the days leading up to our interview, she explains, she has been coughing, vomiting, and getting short of breath on a regular basis, common symptoms of Covid-19.
She tells me about a PWC member who lives with her daughter, her son-in-law, and her baby grandchild, and who has also been showing signs of the virus. And she tells the story of yet another member, a 70-year-old man who died of the virus shortly after being admitted to the intensive care unit of the Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown LA. A PWC colleague, Lolita Andrada Lledo, knows of another home care worker who had nowhere to self-quarantine other than his car. “So he slept in his car. After three days, he put up a tent out back of his apartment building.”
As a society, we don’t like to think about the conditions in which these immigrant workers labor, because for us the moral calculus is less complicated if their stories are left untold. We don’t like to think about the fact that our clothes are so cheap at least in part because they are sewn by horrifically exploited laborers in LA sweatshops—workers who, like their counterparts in China, India, Bangladesh, and other nodes in the global garment industry, earn just a few cents for each arm or shoulder of a shirt that they sew. We don’t like to think about the fact that our food is affordable at least in part because so many undocumented farm workers do backbreaking work in the fields for a pittance. We don’t like to acknowledge that if we are middle class, we can afford housecleaners at least in part because the undocumented workers who clean our toilets and sweep our floors don’t have the power to demand decent hourly wages. And we shy away from acknowledging that we can hand off to strangers the day-to-day home care work for our elderly and sick relatives at least in part because there is a huge well of undocumented workers willing to take on these emotionally and physically demanding jobs for subsistence wages.
In the best of times, these workers live paycheck to paycheck, vulnerable to wage theft and other forms of exploitation, always aware that if they fall sick they have only the under-resourced community health centers to fall back on or hospital emergency rooms that will treat them but may charge them with huge, unpayable medical bills. And now, in these unprecedented shelter-in-place days, the factories have been shuttered and the undocumented left to fend for themselves, with no access to unemployment insurance. “We’ve got 45,000 garment workers in Los Angeles,” says Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center in downtown LA, on the edge of the usually crowded, cacophonous Fashion District. “About two-thirds of our members are unemployed. They lost work overnight or went from reduced hours to no work. This will hit workers really hard.”
“I don’t have one dollar right now,” said Paulina quietly. “We don’t have money for food, because we just paid $800 rent to the owner of the house.”
“There’s not a lot of savings,” says Socorro, a 39-year-old mother of three and domestic worker in Sonoma who’s wearing a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the logo for the California Domestic Workers’ Coalition. Before the pandemic, she took part in lobbying campaigns in DC to pressure her congressional representative to take the issue seriously. Now, the fear of hunger stalks her. “We’ve been going to food banks, going to the Day Labor Center, where they’ve been giving us boxes of food.” The $4,000 rainy day fund that she had painstakingly stashed away over 18 years of work has been obliterated in two months, since all but two of her employers simply stopped paying her when they stopped letting her inside their homes.
“To be honest with you, I don’t have much money,” says 56-year-old garment worker Francisco, who fled the Guatemalan civil war in the 1990s, as he sits in his small apartment, his face creased with worry. “Our salaries are terrible, and they lead to Third World living conditions. We have no rights as workers.” Now, unemployed, “some friends are helping me with groceries. I’m spending money just on water, coffee, a box of cereal.”
“I haven’t worked for three weeks,” says Pablo, a 39-year-old garment worker, originally from Mexico, whom I interviewed on April 8. He had managed to pay his $800 rent (reduced from $1,500) that month, but worried about paying for later months. He was out of funds for food and was already unable to pay his utility bills. On top of that, he worried about how his parents in Mexico would survive, now that he had no money to send them.
Because Washington has shown no no flicker of empathy for undocumented workers during these lockdown days, California is trying to fill the gap with an array of creative programs.
At the city level, in April Los Angeles created the Angeleno Card, which is already providing grants of up to $1,500 to low-income residents who are able to show they are experiencing economic hardship because of the pandemic. The money, distributed through debit cards, was raised from private donations, and the undocumented can apply on equal terms with the documented.
At the county level, a number of grassroots organizations are reopening funds through a program called UndocuFund, which was created to help undocumented families rendered jobless and homeless by the rash of wildfires that have bedeviled the West in recent years. Some families, says Christy Lubin, have received up to $1,000 from these funds since mid-March.
At the state level, in mid-April Governor Newsom announced the creation of a public-private $125 million Disaster Relief Fund partnership. It will provide cash benefits, ranging from $500 to $1,000, to individuals and families excluded from the provisions of the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act. The moneys, $75 million from the state and $50 million from private donors, will be distributed via a network of regional nonprofits that have had long experience working with undocumented communities. But they are unlikely to be able to accommodate all of those in need—in Sonoma County alone, Lubin says, nearly 4,000 families have applied for relief from the UndocuFund since it started disbursing money in mid-March.
With the federal Labor Department turning its back on workers’ rights, California state legislators have also begun paying attention to labor conditions faced by domestic workers. State Senator María Elena Durazo recently authored SB 1257, which aims to extend OSHA protections to domestic workers. Immigrant rights groups and labor organizations around the state are holding a series of “virtual lobby days” to try to convince Sacramento’s politicians of its merits, and it seems likely that Governor Newsom will support the bill. If he does sign it into law, when the stay-at-home orders are lifted and people start hiring housecleaners and home care workers again, they will have to follow CDC employer guidelines (assuming those guidelines stay in effect) by providing things like tissues and hand sanitizer to limit their exposure to the novel coronavirus.
These are all good developments, but without federal assistance on a massive scale, it will not be enough to meet the cascading economic calamity facing California’s more than 2 million undocumented residents. And so, with more and more low-wage workers out of work and running through what little savings they had, it has fallen to the Garment Worker Center, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and other groups to get food boxes and cash payments to as many workers and their families as they can.
“This is a really big crisis for immigrant workers,” Marissa Nuncio explains. “Our organizers are out delivering food to workers’ doors. Shipping food. We are also fundraising, trying to create an emergency relief fund for our membership. The majority of our members who are unemployed are reporting that they are food insecure.”
One of these members is 50-year-old Pedro, who left the Mexican state of Guerrero for California when he was 17. He has been undocumented, living and working in the shadows, for more than three decades. “I work in garments. Shorts, shirts, dresses,” explains Pedro, who, because he can’t afford to own a car, takes buses to work each morning. “I don’t have any benefits. Here, it’s all about how much you work and how much you make. Normally, I work about 55 to 60 hours a week. We make very little money. Every week, I make $260 to $300. I rent a bedroom in a house. I’m paying $500 a month and I live with two other people. My sisters also live in LA, but separately.”
These days he has no work, and he spends his time reading, watching TV, and exercising. What little money Pedro had saved up over the past three decades is now gone, since he has to pay rent and keep his cell-phone service even while unemployed. Luckily, he says, somewhat ruefully, “I’m not that hungry these days. I’m cooking two meals a day. Vegetables. I don’t eat a lot of meat.”
For Lourdes, the out-of-work cleaner and home care worker from San Francisco, the crisis is puncturing a long-cherished dream. She left Mexico City in her late 20s. She had fallen in love with the City by the Bay after watching the TV series The Streets of San Francisco. “I told my mom, ‘One day I’ll live in San Francisco. It’s the belly-button of the world, the center of the world.’ I achieved that dream.” These days, however, she’s having second thoughts. “It’s still very beautiful,” she says wistfully. “But it’s very expensive and very difficult.” Lourdes was unable to make rent in April and May. Soon, she hopes, she will receive $400 in emergency money from the National Domestic Workers Alliance fund, and she’s excited about the state’s new public-private fund to help the undocumented. But, longtime organizer that she is, she also worries that it’s not nearly enough to meet the needs of California’s millions of undocumented residents.
“The immigrant community is essential,” Lourdes notes. “Immigrant workers give life, give a pulse, to our economy. We need to be taken into account now that we are in this crisis.”
*Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, Breadline USA, American Furies, The American Way of Poverty, The House of 20,000 Books, and, most recently, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.