‘We Don’t Exist’: Texas Domestic Workers Fight for Inclusion in Labor Laws

Domestic workers already lacked contracts, wage protections, and health care benefits. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.


‘We Don’t Exist’: Texas Domestic Workers Fight for Inclusion in Labor Laws

Domestic workers already lacked contracts, wage protections, and health care benefits. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Illustration by sunny sone

By Acacia Coronado
May 27, 2020

In the still darkness of pre-dawn, Maria rises for another day. Her clock reads 4:30 a.m. She showers and packs her work tools: toys, storybooks, a few snacks. A special candy surprise if it’s Friday. Then, she embarks on a 45-minute journey across Austin to visit her first workplace, a home where four hungry children, ranging in age from 9 months to 6 years, will soon sleepily await her classic egg breakfast tacos with the signature double fold. 

From 6 to 8:30 a.m. the children are hers. She cooks breakfast for them as they sing duets of the folklore songs of her childhood growing up in Estado de México. As she dresses them for school, Maria speaks to them in Spanish, preparing them for a bilingual future. Then, the children’s parents return ready for the day, and Maria moves on to her next family. 

This isn’t Maria’s first rodeo. The 35-year-old nanny began looking after a soon-to-be-governor’s children in Mexico when she was 15. “I knew nothing about kids back then; I was still one myself,” Maria tells the Observer.

Her own children, who are now 12 and 15, live in Mexico with their grandparents. Six years ago, when she moved to Texas, Maria had to say goodbye to them, a painful memory she is reminded of every morning when she says goodbye to these four children. Her wages are split between sending money to her children and aging parents in Mexico, paying her immigration lawyer, and covering a stack of medical bills resulting from a brain tumor that doctors found in November. At the time, she asked one boss for two days off after enduring migraines and dizzy spells; she got the days, and then she was fired. After she had brain surgery in December, she spent two months at home recovering, returning to work in late February only to once again be sent home after the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread.

Maria is one of the many domestic workers in the state of Texas who have been left out of state and federal labor protections. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), a nonprofit organization that lobbies for rights and benefits for domestic workers in the U.S., estimates that more than 2.5 million domestic workers are employed across the country, although there is no formal count. The workforce is mostly women of color, many of whom are immigrants, and their job descriptions are vague, varying from nannies to household cleaners to care workers. In 2018, the NDWA worked with community-based organizations along the Texas-Mexico border to survey 516 Texas domestic workers. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed worked without contracts, while only 2 percent received paid leave and 3 percent reported being paid overtime. More than a quarter of people who clean houses said they have been threatened with deportation. Currently, there are little legal protections in place against abuses. While some domestic workers are covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act, others, such as individually hired live-in domestic workers, are exempt.

Since 2007, the NDWA has been working with states across the country to regulate and protect the workplace rights of domestic workers. The organization drafted a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which can be adopted by states and cities, that outlines the basic rights they seek, including wage protections, protections against workplace harassment and discrimination, the right to meals and breaks, written work agreements, and support for sexual assault survivors. One city and nine states have passed some or all of these protections. Texas is not one of them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded problems for domestic workers. Since the pandemic began, says Daniana Trigoso-Kukulski, executive director of Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, every week as many as 90 people reach out to her organization seeking financial and emotional support. Trigoso-Kukulski expects that number to increase as the pandemic wears on. Domestic workers, most of whom are considered essential workers, continue to work at the discretion of their employers, but often lack protective gear or the possibility of paid leave if they get sick. “Crises like this have shed a light and created opportunities for domestic workers communicating with us and speaking out,” Trigoso-Kukulski says.

But domestic workers are still particularly vulnerable. Maria and other workers are referred to either by their first names only or pseudonyms to protect their identities due to concerns of immigration and workplace repercussions. 

Six years ago, when Maria crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, she traveled more than 1,000 miles from Tijuana to Laredo. Today, as she awaits a visa, she takes English lessons at night in preparation for the day—an estimated 14 years from now—when she is able to petition for U.S. citizenship and once again see her two children. 

Shortly before 1 p.m. on weekdays, Maria heads to her second job, where a 2-year-old and 5-year-old await her in their downtown Austin home. Maria makes lunch for the children, plans an afternoon of bilingual activities, and gets the children washed and ready for dinner with their family. By 5:30 p.m., she’s ready to repeat the routine the next day. 

Maria feels incomplete when she doesn’t see the kids she cares for. Domestic workers commonly become inextricably tied to their employer’s family; their job is to preserve the essence of home for the children while their parents are away. Though she tries to avoid forming deep bonds with the families to shelter herself from the pain that comes with leaving a job, Maria says she can’t help but love them as if they were her own family. “When I brush a little girl’s hair, I can’t help thinking back to the moments I used to brush my own daughter’s hair. Then, it is difficult not to cry,” Maria says. But singing and dancing with the toddlers in the kitchen, teaching them tongue twisters in Spanish, and holding them when they get upset are the moments that Maria says bring her the most peace. She says she will never forget waking from her brain surgery to see one of her families visiting her, the children singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in perfect Spanish. 

But Maria doesn’t have healthcare benefits or paid leave. She doesn’t have contracts or overtime pay either. So, last year she joined a local organization of domestic workers called Mujeres Inspiradas en Sueños, Metas y Acciones (MISMA, or Women Inspired by Dreams, Goals, and Actions). The group is now one of the eight affiliate chapters of the NDWA in Texas (there are 60 across the U.S.). Their mission is to educate fellow domestic workers about the rights that they do have and organize for future rights.

Texas has a long way to go, says Rocío Ávila, the state policy director and staff attorney for the NDWA. “Texas has some of the most archaic employment labor laws that are completely not up to par with the rest of the country,” Ávila says.

Ávila says domestic workers in the U.S. have been excluded from most labor protections since the 1930s. Although some states have passed protections through the NDWA, Texas Republican legislators appear uninterested in taking similar steps. Ávila says the greatest hope for workers in Texas is the federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, proposed last summer and championed by Senator Kamala Harris, D-CA, and Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-WA. This bill, and other workplace protections, would also cover undocumented workers. The bill has yet to be assigned to a committee. 

Minimum wage laws in Texas follow federal law, and state lawmakers can, and do, preempt new labor protections put in place by municipalities. And it’s hard to enforce the protections that do exist, as many people fear losing work, retaliation by employers, or threats of deportation, and don’t report violations. For now, Ávila is focused on organizing the fight. “The success is not the signing of the law in the book, it is the organizing, the empowering of these women,” Ávila says. 

The possibility for a bill supporting Texas domestic workers lies in groups like MISMA, which is among the most active in the state. Since MISMA began with a group of 10 workers in 2013, membership has steadily grown to include nearly 40 people today. Before the pandemic, every Saturday, workers met in an empty cafeteria in downtown Austin. Members include Jorge, who arrived from Mexico City three years ago and now cleans offices and homes, and Esther, who watches kids in her home after working for more than a year at a daycare. Juany arrived in the U.S. from Mexico two decades ago and has already put two of her four children through college, working at factories, as a caretaker for the elderly, and now as a nanny for her blue collar neighbors. “You love them like your children but it isn’t the same,” Juany says. 

With steaming breakfast tacos on the table and a cup of warm coffee in her hand, MISMA’s leader Rosario Nava directs the meetings. They check in on members’ families, jobs, and how they’re holding up personally. Then they get down to business, discussing how many hours each member has completed from their mandatory 20 hours of training on worker rights.

After working with the same Austin family for the last decade, first housekeeping and then as a nanny, Nava says her employers are like her own family. The kids, now ages 3 and 6, call her “Nana,” and though she does not have children of her own, Nava says she knows what it feels like to be a mother. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, Nava stays with the kids, and one weekend a month the children stay at her house, where they each have a room. On those weekends, her husband doesn’t work so he can play with the children in the yard. The kids, who are of Middle Eastern heritage and are now fluent in Spanish, cook one of Nava’s traditional Mexican dishes with her. “They are being raised with the culture of their family and the culture of their nana,” Nava says. 

Nava has been working with MISMA since its inception and knows that “like family” doesn’t always guarantee fair treatment. Nava says she feels blessed that she was granted a contract by her employer when she requested formalizing their agreement. She also receives paid leave and rest days. When she suffered a debilitating injury in her hand that forced her to take time off work, Nava was paid in full and the family visited her frequently. 

Alma is one of the most recent recruits to MISMA. An undocumented immigrant, Alma joined in 2019 after years of abuse in the construction, cleaning, and childcare industries. Alma says she was paid below minimum wage cleaning construction site bathrooms and quarters that were soiled from floor to ceiling. “By the time they paid you there were already bills stacked up,” Alma says. The shifts were long—she’d be picked up from her trailer park at 7 a.m. and dropped off at 7 p.m. After Alma suffered a fall that turned her left leg purple, she continued working since she did not have medical leave. Soon, her cleaning crew began cleaning apartments from San Marcos to Austin. For eight hours of deep cleaning labor, Alma says she was paid less than $35. 

Alma was abused as a child and says she was raised in a society where women are taught to stay silent, so she never thought to tell anyone about the abuse she suffered working with the cleaning crew. But six years ago, when a woman at church asked if she would be interested in becoming a nanny and provided her with a recommendation, Alma sighed in relief, grateful to move on. 

But it was a temporary relief. For three years, Alma cared for the family’s newborn baby and cleaned the house in her spare time, for no additional pay. She left every room as spotless as she would leave the apartments she had been trained to clean. Then, three years ago, as injuries from her past resurfaced, she stopped doing the laundry and cleaning in addition to watching the child. The chores weren’t part of her job; she says she did them out of love. Soon, she began to feel an air of hostility from her employers. When Alma worked up her courage to ask for a $1 raise, Alma says her employers yelled and threatened her: “I know how to make you work harder and pay you less.”

The relationship with her employer remains strained, but Alma says she stays for the children who give her joy. “You do more because you feel you are part of them, but then you realize you aren’t,” Alma says. “With the oldest I gave him all the love of a grandmother.” 

She works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for $480 per week, with no overtime pay. If the family leaves town, they still pay her during their time away, but if she calls in sick she does not get paid. She says without papers she doesn’t feel safe to speak up about her previous workplace assault. As she learns about her rights, such as minimum wage, she feels more confident.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, NDWA has been lobbying nationally for unemplolyment benefits and cash assistance that is inclusive of undocumented families. They’ve also been asking for protections and benefits for essential workers—which includes childcare, custodial, and maintenance workers—including access to personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and free COVID-19 testing and care, regardless of immigration status and insurance coverage. 

MISMA continues to meet electronically every week, which Alma says has brought them closer together. “We are not in the shadows anymore, we are [speaking out] more and more every day,” Alma says. She says they look forward to calling on Texas lawmakers to recognize them as people with value and protect them too. 

“There are no laws that [specify] domestic workers,” Alma says. “We don’t exist. But if we stop, so many other things stop with us.”

Correction: The story originally stated that domestic workers aren’t protected under the national Fair Labor Standards Act. Some domestic workers are in fact covered. The Observer regrets the error.

Read more from the Observer:

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Raise a Glass to the Class of COVID-19: Maybe they will help build a post-pandemic world (or so I hope).

Locked Out: Visitation is a critical lifeline for incarcerated people, yet some families say Texas prison officials ban them from seeing loved ones over petty or unproven claims of misconduct.