Taking too long? Close loading screen.
Connect with us

Business

Housekeepers Face a Disaster Generations in the Making

Published

on

The scariest day of Maria Del Carmen’s life started with a phone call that initially cheered her up.

A native of Mexico, she has spent the last 24 years as a housekeeper in Philadelphia and had a dozen regular clients before the pandemic began. By April, she had three. Food banks became essential to feeding herself and her three children. To earn extra money, she started selling face masks stitched on her sewing machine.

So in mid-August, when a once-regular client — a pair of professors from the University of Pennsylvania and their children — asked her to come and clean, she was delighted. No one was home when she arrived, which seemed like a wise precaution, given social distancing guidelines. What struck her as odd were the three bottles of Lysol on the dining room table. She had a routine at every home, and it had never involved disinfectant.

Ms. Del Carmen started scrubbing, doing laundry and ironing. After a few hours, she stepped outside to throw away some garbage. A neighbor spotted her and all but shrieked: “Maria, what are you doing here?!” The professors and their children, the neighbor said, had all contracted the coronavirus.

“I was terrified,” Ms. Del Carmen recalled. “I started crying. Then I went home, took off all of my clothing, showered, got in bed, and for the next night and the next day, I waited for the coronavirus.”

She never got sick, but she still is livid. At 58 and, by her account, overweight, she considers herself at high risk. That is why she never took off her mask while cleaning that day — diligence she thinks might have saved her life.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want to disinfect their own homes,” she said, “so they call a housekeeper.”

The pandemic has had devastating consequences for a wide variety of occupations, but housekeepers have been among the hardest hit. Seventy-two percent of them reported that they had lost all of their clients by the first week of April, according to a survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The fortunate had employers who continued to pay them. The unlucky called or texted their employers and heard nothing back. They weren’t laid off so much as ghosted, en masse.

Since July, hours have started picking up, though far short of pre-pandemic levels, and often for lower wages.

“We plateaued at about 40 percent employment in our surveys of members,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the alliance. “And because most of these people are undocumented, they have not received any kind of government relief. We’re talking about a full-blown humanitarian crisis, a Depression-level situation for this work force.”

ImageMs. Del Carmen believes that her diligence in wearing a mask while cleaning might have saved her life.
Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

The ordeal of housekeepers is a case study in the wildly unequal ways that the pandemic has inflicted suffering. Their pay dwindled, in many cases, because employers left for vacation homes or because those employers could work from home and didn’t want visitors. Few housekeepers have much in the way of savings, let alone shares of stock, which means they are scrabbling for dollars as the wealthiest of their clients are prospering courtesy of the recent bull market.

In a dozen interviews, housekeepers in a handful of cities across the country described their feelings of fear and desperation over the last six months. A few said the pain had been alleviated by acts of generosity, mostly advances for future work. Far more said they were suspended, or perhaps fired, without so much as a conversation.

#styln-briefing-block { font-family: nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif; background-color: #ffffff; color: #121212; box-sizing: border-box; margin: 30px auto; max-width: 510px; width: calc(100% – 40px); border-top: 5px solid #121212; border-bottom: 2px solid #121212; padding: 5px 0 10px 0; } @media only screen and (min-width: 600px) { #styln-briefing-block { margin: 40px auto; } } #styln-briefing-block a { color: #121212; } #styln-briefing-block ul { margin-left: 15px; } #styln-briefing-block a.briefing-block-link { color: #121212; border-bottom: 1px solid #cccccc; font-size: 0.9375rem; line-height: 1.375rem; } #styln-briefing-block a.briefing-block-link:hover { border-bottom: none; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-bullet::before { content: ‘•’; margin-right: 7px; color: #333; font-size: 12px; margin-left: -13px; top: -2px; position: relative; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-bullet:not(:last-child) { margin-bottom: 0.75em; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header-section { margin-bottom: 16px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header { font-weight: 700; font-size: 1.125rem; line-height: 1.375rem; display: inline-block; margin-bottom: 5px; } @media only screen and (min-width: 600px) { #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header { font-size: 1.25rem; line-height: 1.5625rem; } } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header a { text-decoration: none; color: #333; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header a::after { content: ‘›’; position: relative; font-weight: 500; margin-left: 5px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-footer { font-size: 14px; margin-top: 1.25em; /* padding-top: 1.25em; border-top: 1px solid #e2e2e2; */ } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-briefinglinks a { font-weight: bold; margin-right: 6px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-footer a { border-bottom: 1px solid #ccc; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-footer a:hover { border-bottom: 1px solid transparent; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header { border-bottom: none; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-lb-items { display: grid; grid-template-columns: auto 1fr; grid-column-gap: 20px; grid-row-gap: 15px; line-height: 1.2; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-update-time a { color: #999; font-size: 12px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-update-time.active a { color: #D0021B; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-footer-meta { display: none; justify-content: space-between; align-items: center; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-ts { color: #D0021B; font-size: 12px; display: block; } @media only screen and (min-width: 600px) { #styln-briefing-block a.briefing-block-link { font-size: 1.0625rem; line-height: 1.5rem; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-bullet::before { content: ‘•’; margin-right: 10px; color: #333; font-size: 12px; margin-left: -15px; top: -2px; position: relative; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-update-time a { font-size: 13px; } } @media only screen and (min-width: 1024px) { #styln-briefing-block { width: 100%; } }

One of them is Vicenta, a 42-year-old native of Mexico who lives in Los Angeles, and who, like many contacted for this article, did not want her last name used because she is undocumented.

For 10 years, she had earned $2,000 a month cleaning two opulent homes in gated communities in Malibu, Calif. This included several exhausting weeks in 2018, when fires raged close enough to cover both homes in ash. Three times a week, she would visit both houses and scrub ash off floors, windows, walls and, for one family, a fluffy little dog named Bobby.

Vicenta received nothing extra for the added time it took to scour those houses during the fires. She would have settled for a glass of water, she said, but neither family offered one.

“It was incredibly hot, and my mouth and throat were really sore,” she recalled. “I should have seen a doctor, but we don’t have health insurance.”

If Vicenta thought her years of service had banked some good will, she was wrong. Early in May, both families called and left a message with her 16-year-old son, explaining that for the time being, she could not visit and clean. There was some vague talk about eventually asking her to return, but messages she left with the families for clarification went unreturned.

“Mostly, I feel really sad,” Vicenta said. “My children were born here, so they get coupons for food, but my husband lost his job as a prep cook in a restaurant last year and we are three months behind on rent. I don’t know what will happen next.”

Housekeepers have long had a uniquely precarious foothold in the U.S. labor market. Many people still refer to them as “the help,” which makes the job sound like something far less than an occupation. The Economic Policy Institute found that the country’s 2.2 million domestic workers — a group that includes housekeepers, child care workers and home health care aides — earn an average of $12.01 an hour and are three times as likely to live in poverty than other hourly workers. Few have benefits that are common in the American work force, like sick leave, health insurance, formal contracts or protection against unfair dismissal.

This underclass status can be traced as far back as the 1800s, historians say, and is squarely rooted in racism. Domestic work was then one of the few ways that Black women could earn money, and well into the 20th century, most of those women lived in the South. During the Jim Crow era, they were powerless and exploited. Far from the happy “mammy” found in popular culture like “Gone With the Wind,” these women were mistreated and overworked. In 1912, a publication called The Independent ran an essay by a woman identified only as a “Negro Nurse,” who described 14-hour workdays, seven days a week, for $10 a month.

“I live a treadmill life,” she wrote. “I see my own children only when they happen to see me on the streets.”

In 1935, the federal government all but codified the grim conditions of domestic work with the passage of the Social Security Act. The law was the crowning achievement of the New Deal, providing retirement benefits as well as the country’s first national unemployment compensation program — a safety net that was invaluable during the Depression. But the act excluded two categories of employment: domestic workers and agricultural laborers, jobs that were most essential to Black women and Black men, respectively.

The few Black people invited to weigh in on the bill pointed out the obvious. In February 1935, Charles Hamilton Houston, then special counsel to the N.A.A.C.P., testified before the Senate Finance Committee and said that from the viewpoint of Black people, the bill “looks like a sieve with the holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”

Historian Mary Poole, author of “The Segregated Origins of Social Security,” sifted through notes, diaries and transcripts created during the passage of the act and found that Black people were excluded not because white Southerners in control of Congress at the time insisted on it. The truth was more troubling, and more nuanced. Members of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration — most notably, the Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr. — persuaded congressional leaders that the law would be far simpler to administer, and therefore far more likely to succeed, if the two occupations were left out of the bill.

In the years that followed, Black domestic workers were consistently at the mercy of white employers. In cities like New York, African-American women lined up at spots along certain streets, carrying a paper bag filled with work clothes, waiting for white housewives to offer them work, often for an hour or two, sometimes for the day. A reporter, Marvel Cooke, and an activist, Ella Baker, wrote a series of articles in 1935 for The Crisis, the journal of the N.A.A.C.P., describing life in what they called New York City’s “slave markets.”

The markets’ popularity diminished in the ’40s after Mayor Fiorello La Guardia opened hiring halls, where contracts were signed laying out terms for day labor arrangements. But in early 1950, Ms. Cooke found the markets in New York City were bustling again. In a series of first-person dispatches, she joined the “paper bag brigades” and went undercover to describe life for the Black women who stood in front of the Woolworths on 170th Street.

“That is the Bronx Slave Market,” she wrote in The Daily Compass in January 1950, “where Negro women wait, in rain or shine, in bitter cold or under broiling sun, to be hired by local housewives looking for bargains in human labor.”

That same year, domestic work was finally added to the Social Security Act, and by the 1970s it had been added to federal legislation intended to protect laborers, including the Fair Labor Standards Act. African-American women had won many of those protections by organizing, though by the 1980s, they had moved into other occupations and were largely replaced by women from South and Central America as well as the Caribbean.

Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

Today, many housekeepers are undocumented and either don’t know about their rights or are afraid to assert them. The sort of grass-roots organizations that tried to eradicate New York City’s “slave markets” are lobbying for state laws to protect domestic work. Nine states have domestic workers’ rights laws on the book. Last summer, Senator Kamala Harris introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which would guarantee a minimum wage and overtime pay, along with protections against racial discrimination. The bill has yet to pass, and if it did, labor advocates and historians say it would merely be a beginning.

“It’s important to get a federal bill, but it leaves unanswered the question of enforcement,” said Premilla Nadasen, the author of “Household Workers Unite” and a professor of history at Barnard College. “The Department of Labor is overextended and it tends not to check up on individual employers. The imbalance of power between employer and employee has been magnified by the pandemic because millions of people are now looking for work. And xenophobic rhetoric has made women more fearful of being deported.”

The pandemic has laid bare not just the vulnerability of housekeepers to economic shocks but their total lack of leverage. Several workers said they had clients who would not let anyone clean who has had Covid-19; others know clients who will hire only Covid survivors, on the theory that after their recovery, they pose no health risk. Housekeepers are often given strict instructions about how they can commute, and are quizzed about whether and how much they interact with others. But they have no idea whether their employers are taking similar precautions. Nor, in many cases, are they accorded the simple decencies that are part of formal employment.

“It would be nice to have at least two days’ notice when someone cancels on you, either to let you know or compensate you for your time,” said Magdalena Zylinska, a housekeeper in Chicago who helped lobby for a Domestic Workers’ Rights bill that passed in Illinois in 2017. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that if I don’t work, I don’t get paid and I still have to buy food, pay bills, utilities.”

Ms. Zylinska emigrated from Poland more than 20 years ago and has yet to get a week of paid vacation. The closest she came was in 1997, when a couple handed her $900 in cash, all at once — for work she’d just finished, work she would soon do, plus a holiday bonus.

“The couple said, ‘Merry Christmas, Maggie,’” she said. “I remember counting that money four times.”

Source

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Business

The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

Published

on

The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

Source

Continue Reading

Business

Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

Published

on

The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

Source

Continue Reading

Business

Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

Published

on

As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

Source

Continue Reading

Trending