"We're in survival mode": How the pandemic hurts immigrant women who clean houses

Small business owner Nina, an immigrant, employs mostly undocumented workers who can't file for unemployment

Published September 7, 2020 5:30PM (EDT)

Cleaning supplies and medical face masks (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
Cleaning supplies and medical face masks (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

This is an excerpt from the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness. Interview and editing by Ela Banerjee, community partnership coordinator at Voice of Witness.

Nina Gonzalez, 42, immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in 1997 and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and teenage son. She owns a cleaning business that employs ten other immigrant women, but the pandemic has severely impacted the flow of available work. Note: Nina's name was changed to protect the privacy of her employees.

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The reason I came to the United States was to save my life. When I was six years old, my father started sexually and physically abusing me. Eventually he came to the United States and then something happened that got him deported. I was 18 at that time and when he came back home, I said, "No, you're not going to keep abusing me." One night he almost killed me and I ran out of my house. 

I had a cousin who was living in San Francisco and she said, "If you want, you can borrow money and come to where I am." And I was thinking San Francisco was another part of Mexico. When I made it to San Francisco at 19, that's when I realized the United States is another country. Two years ago I was able to get asylum. It was life-changing because for many, many years I lived in the shadows and now I feel a little bit more comfortable. I have a social security number, I have a driver's license. I don't have to fear anything.

I started my cleaning business in 2008 and now I have ten girls who help me on a regular basis, Monday through Friday. We used to be very busy. We'd work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but when COVID-19 hit in the first week of March most of my clients canceled the service and said they would reach out when the shelter-in-place order was lifted. A lot of clients sent me links and said, "Oh, you can apply for a loan and continue paying your employees," but they don't understand the situation.

Most of the women I employ don't really speak Spanish. It's really hard for them to communicate, because their first language is either Mam or some other Mayan dialect. They are all undocumented. I have to pay them cash and this is their main source of income. Most people who have a social security number can apply for unemployment. But the women who work for me, the most they can get is help with food from nonprofit organizations. We tried seeking help for rent for some of them with a local aid organization, and we were all denied. The women are really scared of being evicted. Most of these women have two or three kids. I feel the burden, because I feel that they are under my wing. It's really just heartbreaking, because as a human being, you want to do as much as you can. Each week I'm trying to see what I can do to help them a little bit, but it's really not much.

A lot of people were canceling having us come clean, but on March 6 I had to stop everything. I have about 20 clients total and they live all over the place, from San Francisco to Redwood City. There are good people out there, but there are also a lot of very selfish people. I've found that not a lot of people appreciate what we do. I have clients who said, "We'll reach out to you when the shelter in place is lifted." I sent them text messages saying, "I'm thinking about you. I hope you and your family are okay." They didn't even respond. They see cleaning as something that isn't important. They just don't care. We do things that nobody else wants to do. We deep clean the bathrooms, the toilet bowls, and the floors. We deep clean the kitchen, the countertops. We vacuum, we dust, we wipe all of the surfaces, we disinfect. They see it like it's nothing, but I think we are an essential business because we keep things clean. We work in people's homes for years and we care about their families. And then for us to be treated like this—it's kind of sad.

All the women who work for me are from Guatemala. I'm from Guatemala and I never intended to hire just from there, but I noticed that these women are really hard-working and they really love what they do. They're very smart and they're pretty fast learners. They're not friends at first, but then once they get to know each other, they become close. They text or call each other. Even if they don't know how to communicate because they speak different dialects, they figure it out. When we're all working together, they have a big smile on their faces because they see each other.

It makes me very happy that I can provide jobs for them. I also teach them Spanish and I encourage them to learn and not to be shy. Some of the women lived in very remote areas in Guatemala. When I came to the United States, I didn't have any support. I didn't have anybody telling me, "You can go to school, you can do things differently." I wish it had happened. And now I'm trying to teach them that they can do more and achieve more in their life. They cannot live in fear.

I've been hired to clean two empty houses during this time. And it broke my heart when I saw these women who work for me. They've lost their smiles. It seems like they have no hope. I remember us laughing together in the car, talking about their kids, and now everything is so quiet. Nobody talks about anything.

My own family is doing OK. We stay home a lot. My husband works for a paper shredding and recycling company, but he isn't working now because of the pandemic. The cost of living in this area, it doesn't make any sense sometimes. It's really difficult. Every dollar that we make, I make sure that I pay the girls and then everything else goes to our rent, and then food. A lot of things at this moment we cannot keep paying. We cannot pay for cable; we cut it off. We take shorter showers. We're trying to use less water, less power, all those things. We're in survival mode right now.

My business means a lot to me. I do it because I love it. I love to help others. And I can support my family through this. You know, somebody working for a tech company, they take it really seriously. I take my job seriously, too. These last few weeks, it was really worrying because I feel that all these families are depending on me and there's not much I can do. I lost my appetite. I wasn't able to sleep. All this time, you know, you just keep thinking and thinking and thinking. I felt like I was going to go crazy.

On May 18, we got good news. San Mateo County entered Stage 2 for the coronavirus, so we were authorized to go back to work. We still have to wear masks and gloves and only two people at a time can go inside each home, but at least we're doing something. So for this week I have five houses, which is great. I'm just hoping that, day by day we get more clients and then we start working a little more. If some of my clients keep losing their jobs or something else happens, then we're going to be in big trouble.

The business may not close completely, but eventually I will have to let go of more people. And I really don't want to do that. I had to let go of the two girls who started working for me most recently, and it was really, really hard. As much as I wanted to keep them, there's really not much I can do. And you know, I had to be honest with them because I cannot lie and say, "Oh, you'll be back." And then the days go by and nothing is happening. I told them that if they're going to stay in the area and if things get better, I'm happy to hire them back. But it's really hard to say what's going to happen.

By Nina Gonzalez

Nina’s name was changed to protect the privacy of her employees.

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By Ela Banerjee

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