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Three years ago I had the life-changing experience of watching Roma, the Academy Award-winning movie directed by Alfonso Cuaron, in a theater full of domestic workers, almost exclusively women of color and immigrants. For all of us in the audience, it was the first time we had seen the story of a domestic worker — a nanny, house cleaner or caregiver who works in our homes taking care of the people and intimate spaces most important to us — on the big screen. Not as an extra or even supporting actor, but as the main character in a sweeping story about love and heartbreak, dreams and disappointment, family and work.
This week, I watched Maid and had the same heart-stopping reaction. Maid is Netflix’s new limited series about a young mother named Alex, a domestic worker in Washington state, inspired by Stephanie Land’s best-selling memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. Immediately immersed in Alex’s world, the opening scene shows her fleeing in the middle of the night to escape another of her partner’s violent rages, desperately taking her young daughter with her who is the center of her world.
We follow Alex as she does everything she can to keep her daughter safe and provide for her, despite the cruel realities of being a single mother living in working poverty. She finds a job as a housecleaner but can’t find childcare for the hours she needs to work. She struggles to buy food for the two of them with only $15 in her pocket — because the wages as a house cleaner are so low and, as she finds out, the work is so unpredictable. The systems that are supposed to help her are so buried in bureaucracy that they become yet another force working against her.
But this isn’t just the story of one woman. This is the story of low-wage work for millions of domestic workers and working women, especially mothers, in the US. This is the story of working with no safety net and no margin for error. It’s the hard labor of every domestic worker — scrubbing walls and vacuuming floors as a house cleaner or caring for our loved ones who are young, elderly or disabled — for a poverty-level wage without protections or benefits. It’s the inequality of caring for others’ homes and families while you are struggling to care for your own because the care economy has historically been one-directional, relying on the devalued work of women, particularly women of color, so that others can participate in the economy outside the home.
This story couldn’t come at a more relevant time. The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for domestic workers in the US, especially mothers and caregivers. When our economy transitioned to working from home, domestic workers — whose work by definition takes place in someone else’s home — didn’t have that option. A survey of domestic workers by NDWA Labs revealed that by late March of 2020, more than 90 percent of respondents, most of them house cleaners, had lost jobs due to COVID-19. And the unemployment rate for domestic workers remains at a much higher rate to other workers: The Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report shows a 5.2 percent unemployment rate for August 2021, while NDWA Labs’ surveys show joblessness for domestic workers is more than five times that at 28 percent.
Domestic work has long been poverty-wage work, relying on the labor, paid and unpaid, of women and women of color. Of the nearly 2.5 million domestic workers in the US, 91.5 percent are women. And of the 343,000 domestic workers who are house cleaners, 95 percent are women and 71 percent are women of color. The devaluation of this work is crystal clear in the wages: domestic workers earn on average $15,980 per year, compared to $39,120 for other workers. House cleaners earn even less at $14,915. For mothers, who are increasingly breadwinners in their homes, the cruelty of working poverty is even more acute. A survey of Latinx household cleaners in New York City conducted between June 2019 and February 2020 reported that 44 percent of household cleaners are the primary wage earner in their household, and are economically responsible for an average of two other household members.
The numbers tell a story. But Maid immerses us in that story: the determination to take care of her daughter that propels Alex forward, the daily indignities of working for people of wealth while she makes impossible choices between gas, food and safety. While a scripted series, Maid immerses us in a truth about America and the reality of work for far too many, including those we now consider essential workers. From the first minute of the first scene, we root for Alex. Her fierce resilience reminds me of hundreds of domestic workers I have met over the past thirteen years with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The challenges she faces are exactly what we seek to address through our legislative campaigns, including the National Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, and narrative change work to center stories like hers.
No one should be faced with the impossible choices of working poverty and without a safety net — especially mothers and the workers who we count on to care for us.
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