Like many progressive parents, a Manhattan mother of two told her sitter to stop coming in March. She was concerned about the caretaker’s roommates and children, one of whom was still going to work. “We have continued paying her at her regular salary of $1,250 a week. And all my friends have done the exact same thing,” the mother said. Meanwhile, a couple of Upper East Side hedge-funders now living in the Hamptons decided to let government pick up the tab: they terminated their staff in March, and some of their employees are now receiving unemployment benefits. (They plan to rehire them at some point.)
They’ve Got Issues
If one were to take the Park Slope message boards and the virtue-signaling of white liberal elites on Facebook as signs of the state of the domestic workforce in wealthy America, one might think all is well on that front. But behind the veneer of Instagram is a stew of moral, economic, and class issues that are reshaping the household-worker-and-employer relationship.
And not necessarily for the better.
The rich, who abhor nothing more than life circumstances being out of their control, are now facing many new kinds of questions and complications with their household help. Before the coronavirus, thinking hard about a domestic worker’s homelife wasn’t exactly top of mind. Now questions abound: Does your nanny share a bathroom? Does she have to take the subway? Are her roommates eating at restaurants? Is her spouse an essential worker?
And in the ever expanding litany of inequalities this crisis has exposed, these questions are usually a one-way conversation, says Tsering D. Lama, an organizer with Adhikaar, a Queens-based advocacy organization for domestic workers. “There is a hyper-paranoia among some employers,” she said. Many now require antibody and coronavirus testing, but Lama hasn’t heard of a situation where the employer offered to meet the same threshold.
Since even billionaires can’t control what happens in their household help’s homes, some say it has been easier (and less anxiety-producing) for the ultra-wealthy to do the laundry, dishes, and vacuuming themselves. One high-powered mother with two Ivy League degrees told me she was very proud of herself for going eight weeks without any kind of help. “I felt really accomplished,” she said. Ultimately, though, she found that it wasn’t “sustainable” to continue forging ahead with two full-time working parents, two young children, and no help.
Not all one-percenters are as self-sufficient. In fact, some have gone to extremes in an effort to keep the live-in help at (their) home. Adhikaar had to rescue three workers from employment situations since the onset of the virus. One household staffer was suffering from intense muscle pain but was instructed by her employer not to seek medical help. Lama also noted that many domestic workers who have been living with their employers during the pandemic are working longer hours but are not being compensated accordingly.
One high-powered mother with two Ivy League degrees told me she was very proud of herself for going eight weeks without any kind of help.
Those who aren’t publicly proclaiming that they are continuing to pay their domestic staff are probably among the majority of employers who have stopped—often because their own income decreased or vanished. Of the 600 workers Adhikaar has been keeping in touch with on a regular basis, three-quarters say they have lost their jobs and are not being paid.
The owner of a New York City–based housecleaning-services company says that, of her 200 clients, only five percent have continued paying her since March. “I didn’t expect people to pay me. I think people’s lives changed. I was surprised and very grateful that a few people continued to pay me,” she said in a recent phone interview. Still, it wasn’t enough income to cover salaries for her eight employees, most of whom could not qualify for unemployment because they are undocumented. “They want to come back to work, but I only have a handful of jobs,” she said.
Another complication is that even the top five percent—those earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—often don’t have staff quarters, putting another strain on the relationship. As many parents told me, they don’t want their family’s caretaker riding public transportation but often don’t have the space to house the employee, or the domestic worker doesn’t want to live in. “Our clients are scared of getting the virus. They are afraid we are getting sick on the subways,” the owner of the cleaning service told me. And that’s the mentality for housekeepers who can ostensibly do their work when no one is home. When it comes to the wealthy’s child-care providers, parents are even more spooked about exposure on buses and trains. (Incidentally, Cuomo has declared the subways safe, an assessment contested by the Centers for Disease Control.)
After watching the last three months play out, the owner of the housecleaning service isn’t buying all the talk about people coming together and helping each other. “People say we are going to be human after this. I think COVID-19 will make you more selfish. If you cough or sneeze, they run from you,” she said. “Usually to the Hamptons.”
Hannah Seligson is a writer based in New York and the author of, most recently, Mission: Adulthood