Socorro Diaz

Since last week Lee Plaza, a private home healthcare provider in Los Angeles, has been quarantined as a precaution because she fears she might have been exposed to the coronavirus while caring for her primary client — a 98-year-old bedridden woman in an assisted living facility.

A co-worker sent Plaza a news story reporting that seven patients at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19 and “today I received news that one of them had died already,” said the 60-year-old woman, who has worked eight years as a caregiver.

“Neither my agency or the assisted living center informed me about this,” Plaza said, adding her employer had not provided her with protective equipment.

Right now she fears for her health, Plaza said, in part due to her belief that domestic home care workers like herself don’t receive the same kind of health and safety protections available to other occupational safety and health professionals.

“We face health and safety hazards even during normal times and, in my experience, the home care agencies and private families I work for do not provide protective equipment,” she said.

On The Frontlines

Plaza, other caregivers and domestic workers like her are now more essential than ever, working on the frontlines of the pandemic without the luxury of being able to stay at home. There are an estimated 300,000 domestic workers working in California.

“We’re out there keeping society running, but we also need to be taken care of,” said Plaza, who supports SB 1257, the Health and Safety for All Workers Act introduced by state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-24th District).

The measure would benefit nannies, housecleaners and home care workers who are excluded from the California Occupational Safety and Health Act established in 1973.

“In the current health crisis, domestic workers are more likely to contract COVID-19 and spread it throughout our communities,” said Durazo, during an online campaign launch in support of the bill.

“Their safety and the health care of our communities depend on the health and wellbeing of these workers,” Durazo said.

Socorro Diaz knows firsthand the health risks she faces.

After wildfires ravaged hundreds of houses in Santa Rosa in October 2017, Diaz, a housecleaner, was tasked with cleaning homes saturated with ash and smoke.

Soon after, “I had very bad headaches for several weeks. My skin became extremely dry, my eyes burned, while I cleaned I felt burning and itching on my face and my nose started to bleed, something that had never happened to me,” she recalled.

After experiencing breathing problems and going to a clinic, the attending physician told Diaz she had the lungs of a smoker caused by inhaling dust mixed with ashes, even though she has never smoked.

“It is important to include domestic workers in the OSHA protections. Safety and health is not a luxury, it’s a necessity and a right,” Diaz said.

Holding On By A Thread

While the COVID-19 virus poses severe health risks to home care and domestic workers, day laborers are bearing the brunt of the economic impacts caused by the protective actions enacted to stop the spread of the disease.

As businesses close, and people are laid off or are having their work hours reduced, they in turn are not hiring day laborers at the same rate for their home improvement projects.

Gabriel Cruz is barely working four or six hours per week these days. In a recent week, he was only hired to do some gardening for two hours, and another couple hours to uproot a palm tree.

The 45-year-old was able to gather just enough money to pay for a room he rents — $320.

“Sometimes you get something for three hours. Since this epidemic began, it has been completely slow,” said Cruz, 45.

Day labor centers offer limited help in getting jobs, although they continue to help connect workers with people who hire them. Some centers also provide food and other necessities.

But for those who go from corner to corner, standing outside hardware and paint stores, they are finding the number of available day jobs to be scarce.

Cruz began to struggle in mid-February. Now in a good week, he works one day a week.

“The most they [hire you for] is six hours to move things from one place to another. It’s not like they were hiring you all day like before,” he said.

April through June are supposed to be some of the best months to find work, as many employers use tax refunds to buy furniture, make home repairs and upgrades, or move to new homes or apartments. But that is not the case at the moment. And many who would employ day laborers have, themselves, also lost their jobs.

Yet while some of those individuals or businesses who hire day laborers can expect to receive stimulus checks the federal government will send as aid in the face of the economic crisis, that money won’t trickle down to Cruz and many other day laborers.

“Even if we pay taxes, we don’t have any of that (help). It’s the laws of this country. We cannot demand that they give us help, even though we are a part of the workforce,” Cruz said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced earlier this month he would propose a financial aid package for undocumented immigrants excluded from receiving federal aid, but so far he has provided no details.

In the meantime, Cruz will continue heading out every day to look for work, hoping to land something even though he admits uncertainty about the coming months.

“This (virus) came to finish what was already broken,” he said.