‘Plz Cancel Our Cleaning’: Virus Leads Many to Cast Aside Household Help

PASADENA, Calif. — Late last week, Maria Zamorano, 50, picked up her cellphone to check her messages. “Hi, plz cancel our cleaning for tomorrow,” said one. “Maria, I’m going to have to cancel tomorrow’s cleaning. Thank you,” said another.

The housekeeper had been receiving similar texts all week, every one of them a cancellation from homeowners on whom she depends to make a living — swabbing their toilets, vacuuming their carpets and shining their floors.

“I’ll go crazy with despair,” said Ms. Zamorano, just before another text popped up on the screen. “Oh my God, she canceled, too,” she said, glaring at the device in a pink leather wallet that matched her pink nails. That message summed up the uncertain outlook: “Once the country is healthy from the virus, we can reschedule. Please be safe.”

Household help, often performed by undocumented immigrants like Ms. Zamorano, has become a fixture of American homes. In a thriving economy, even middle-class families have been able to hand off their mops, brooms and lawn mowers to low-paid workers from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries. With reliable caregivers at home, many dual-income couples have raised children while building high-powered careers.

When Mayra Brito was hired in Austin, Texas, as a nanny and children’s Spanish teacher for two families — one middle-class, with four children, the other a wealthy couple who both work in technology — her employers had meticulously called each one of her references. They asked to meet in person and one family took her on an informal driving test. It felt like applying for a job at a company. But there were none of those formalities last week, she said, when both families told her to stay home indefinitely without pay because of the threat of Covid-19.

Ms. Brito had worked for one of the families for two years, the other for six months. In letting her go without confirming if or when she might have a job again, one set of parents said they were concerned about the health of their youngest child, a 9-month-old baby. The other said they wanted to keep the children’s aging grandparents who live with them safe.

“I understand their reasons,” Ms. Brito said, “But what I don’t understand is why they didn’t say, ‘We’re going to pay you at least half while you’re at home because we’re not letting you work.’”

She has since fielded requests from one of the families to do video calls because their children miss her. The parents did not offer to compensate her for the calls.

Out of nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants, about 7.6 million are part of the American work force, according to the latest figures from Pew Research Center, in 2017. The service industry employs more undocumented immigrants than any other, but they are also overrepresented in sectors like agriculture, construction and manufacturing. In almost every city in America, they are the backbone of the work force of nannies, housekeepers and gardeners who keep households running.

They are also among the country’s most vulnerable workers. Because they lack legal status and a formal employer-employee relationship, they are unlikely to qualify for government relief.

For many undocumented workers, instability is a fact of life, and abruptly losing a job is not uncommon. But rarely have they faced the loss of so much of their work at once.

Not all employers are dumping their household help.

Maya Brenner, a jewelry designer and mother of three in Los Angeles who employs a nanny full time and a housekeeper twice a week, has asked her nanny to limit her travel to Ms. Brenner’s home and back to her apartment, except for outings to the grocery store wearing an N95 mask and gloves. Ms. Brenner allowed her housekeeper, who she has employed for 12 years, to stay on the job after she agreed to move into their guesthouse.

“I don’t know if she is going out to local stores, speaking with neighbors,” Ms. Brenner said. “I can’t control all of that. Right now, so we can catch our breath, she’s living here.”

Ms. Brenner said she may have to dip into her savings to keep things afloat. Her partner, Dustin Lancaster, runs 12 restaurants and bars that are now shuttered. “I think we can all do this for two months,” she said. “Financially, we don’t know what it will look like keeping them employed down the road.”

Julie Lynn, a film producer in Los Angeles, said that she was sending her nanny of 15 years checks, “as if she was here working with us.”

“I honestly don’t know how we could, in good conscience, do anything else,” she said.

But such arrangements appear to be the exception.

On the LA Nanny Network, a Facebook group, the fallout from the virus has been a hot topic. Last week, a nanny posted that her employer had dismissed her. In the comments, other nannies chimed in: “I got laid off too.” “They laid me off with zero money.’’ “Six years with the same family…they told me not to come and they won’t pay me.”

Silvia and Alfonso, undocumented immigrants from Mexico who asked to be identified only by their first names, thought they had built a stable life in Colorado Springs. She cleaned a different house every day. He worked two restaurant jobs, one as a dishwasher, the other as a cook. Between them, they earned $1,200 a week.

A few years ago they bought a three-bedroom mobile home, which they finished paying off last year, though that still left them with a $650 monthly parking fee in the trailer park.

Feeling flush, they splurged on two used jeeps in good condition for which they are paying monthly. They bought a new dining room set on an in installment plan. Silvia decided to fix her teeth, she said, another expense.

Then came the coronavirus. In short order, Silvia lost three out of five clients. Alfonso was sent home at least for a month.

“We never had any money left to save, but we always had enough to cover our expenses.” said Silvia, 43.

A week later, one more client had canceled. “I don’t know how we will pay our bills,” Silvia said. “I hope no one takes us to court,.”

On the country roads of South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Patricia Toriz drove around desperately on a recent evening, using up precious gas reserves, to look for work. She visited three fruit packing factories. All of them turned her away because she was undocumented.

Ms. Toriz, who has lived in the United States for 14 years, has lost all her work — with the two families whose homes she cleaned weekly and at the small restaurant where she was a server, which closed.

“I’m a trustworthy person, who goes to clean and leaves,” she said of the families. “I have known them for years, but unfortunately, because of all this, they made the decision that they want me out of their house.”

Ms. Toriz lives in a two-bedroom apartment with four children. The older three, who were helping her pay the $600 monthly rent and two car payments, also lost their restaurant jobs because of the virus.

On a recent day, the family packed into the car to buy bread, bologna, milk and eggs. “Only the cheapest things possible,” Ms. Toriz said. “We’re not spending anything extra. We can’t.”

In Southern California, 50 or 60 undocumented workers typically gather at dawn each day at the Pasadena Community Job Center, where homeowners drop by to hire help to move furniture, pull weeds and make minor repairs.

By 10 a.m., the men and women are often all gone, especially come March, when the days grow warmer and longer. But by lunchtime on a recent day, not a single employer had shown up. Workers, who stood outside because of restrictions on group gatherings, soon dispersed.

“Painting a room, tiling a bathroom, gardening, I’m up for it all,” said Carlos Moreno, 49, a single father of two young teenagers born in the United States. But two homeowners for whom he had been scheduled to do work had just canceled.

“Right now, I don’t have any savings. I’m thinking of calling some former employers to see if they’ll me hire me,” he said. “When you have children, you can’t be jobless.”

Ms. Zamorano, the housekeeper, was also at the day laborer center.

On a good week, she said, she usually makes $800 cleaning houses; on a bad week she earns $400. These days, her only income is the $100 a week coming from a longtime employer, the only one so far who promised to pay despite canceling.

That morning, the center informed the assembled workers that it would be closing for the foreseeable future. Instead, it would begin operating as a food bank. Ms. Zamorano managed to get hired to deep-clean the tables, floors and countertops. “I need to be busy,” she said, brandishing her business card: “Maria’s Cleaning Services 7 days a week.”

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