“I felt a little outraged,” says “Linda” when describing how clients began canceling her housecleaning services, before either the local or state stay-at-home orders were announced.* In her five years cleaning homes for families in Stapleton and beyond, Linda had built up a strong client list of ten households. Though she was healthy and prepared to continue cleaning and disinfecting kitchens and homes as part of her regular workday, at a time when many people were still socializing in parks, about half of Linda’s clients had canceled.
Linda appreciates people’s concerns and precaution, but says that in many cases all she received was a text saying “you can’t come until further notice.” No phone call. No “thank you for your service.” No reassurance that they would return to her client list at a future date. Given her longstanding relationship with many of the families, she felt disappointed.
“If we come and clean your house, we’re part of your household, because it’s something very private; you’re opening the doors to your house and inviting us in, and you can’t just set us aside as though we don’t matter,” she says. “We make your bed, pick up your clothes off the floor, clean your bathrooms….we know your pets,” she says, emotion in her voice.
Linda enjoys her work, and takes pride in it. Each month, she sends money back to family members in Chihuahua, Mexico, who rely on these remittances. “As a Latino, the tradition is to help one’s parents; I grew up with this mentality,” she says. Chihuahua, a northern border state famous for Pancho Villa, the Copper Canyon, cattle ranching, and cowboy boots, is also one of the epicenters of cartel activity. Linda left to escape the violence and “to fight for a better future” for herself and her family. Already on tenuous footing as someone working without work authorization in the US, losing her clients has left her unable to support herself or send money to her sister.
Like the families that employed Linda, many industries in Colorado and across the nation rely on undocumented workers in construction, accommodation and food services, childcare, and manufacturing. The Pew Research Center estimates about 130,000 undocumented immigrants call the Denver metro area home. One local business owner, who requested anonymity, estimates that about 60% of the workers in their industry are undocumented, observing: “They truly are the hardest workers.” Most file taxes using an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number). “I often wonder where all this money goes,” says the business owner.
Despite paying into the system and despite businesses’ widespread reliance on this labor pool, which includes millions nationwide, these individuals cannot access government benefits or many services. “They’ll lose their chance of ever becoming legal, and that’s the dream,” says the business owner. The CARES Act does not extend to these approximately 4.3 mill. taxpayers, even though many of their estimated 3.5 million children are US citizens.
Linda accepts this reality. “Being undocumented, you don’t have a voice,” she says, acknowledging the challenge of negotiating deferred or lowered rent with her landlord, who knows she has no legal recourse. “You have the stress of the virus, the bad economy, and the racism,” she says, enumerating the challenges before her now.
“We as Latinos are honorable, respectful, and punctual and we came here to work and find an opportunity.” Two families gave her a parting tip to help mitigate the lost wages. “I am not alone,” Linda says. Her friends who work cleaning houses had similar experiences, receiving some payment from 3 or 4 of the 15-20 homes they clean. “I feel that the value of the person is missing…it’s not that you need to pay every week, but in this time, $10 or $20 makes a difference, so you feel that someone values you, values your work,” says Linda. When asked if she thinks her clients will call her after the pandemic, she says “I don’t know. I wouldn’t have thought they would have treated me this way….nothing is certain.”
*To protect her identity, we are using the pseudonym “Linda”; the interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.