Before the pandemic hit, 59-year-old Maria had steady work cleaning houses in Merced and Winston. But COVID-19 changed everything.
“When the governor told everyone to shelter in place, the homeowners called me and told me not to go to their houses until this is all over,” she said.
That meant a huge loss in income. Maria made pretty good money, about a thousand dollars a week. But she says her clients were all older people who feared contracting the virus.
“So I stayed at home after that because I’m also older and have diabetes, so getting another job would put me at risk too,” Maria said.
She’s lived without documentation in California for the last 30 years, and she asked us to use her first name only. Because of her status, job opportunities are also limited she says. Doing agricultural work is not really an option.
“I used to work in the fields, but I fainted twice due to the heat. It’s hard for me to be out in the sun for long periods of time now,” she said.
Right now, she’s staying at home where she shares a two-bedroom apartment with one of her daughters and four grandchildren. Her daughter receives welfare that covers the rent but Maria is still responsible for paying the utilities.
“Not working has affected me a lot because I have no money and I don’t receive government aid,” she said.
She tried applying for the California COVID-19 Relief Fund for undocumented workers, but she said she was never able to speak to anyone.
“I spent the entire month of May calling and never getting through to anyone and I imagine it’s the same experience for others that have tried to use it,” Maria said.
Maria’s story is not unique. A new report from UC Merced shows undocumented workers have been hit the hardest when it comes to job loss during the pandemic.
“In California 1 out of every 4 pandemic-related job losses was among non-citizens,” said faculty affilliate with the UC Merced Community and Labor Center Edward Flores, who authored the study.
And he said it’s even higher, about 1 in 3, for women who are undocumented and doing non-essential work, especially in the service industry.
“The service sector has really been slammed by the pandemic and this is where a lot of immigrant women concentrate and that’s why it’s affecting them most acutely,” Flores said.
He said his research is based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s current population survey data for February and April of 2020, which shows trends in job losses. And, Flores said, when the economy does start to improve, undocumented women will be the last to recover.
“The research shows that people of color, women and those persons who are marginalized in the workforce are the first ones to be fired during a crisis and the last ones to be hired during an economic recovery,” he said.
Recently Maria did find one house-cleaning job. She said it makes her nervous to return to work, but she also needs to pay her utilities bill.
“This woman owns a ranch. I clean her house three times a week and we make sure to keep a distance,” Maria said. “It’s not ideal, but it’s what I have to do to earn some money.”
And she’s staying productive in other ways. Maria volunteers with an organization where she helps package masks for people working in the fields. She knows she can’t do field work herself but she wants to make sure those who do stay protected.