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Domestic workers left with few safety nets amid coronavirus cancellations

Housekeepers, nannies and home care aides are now either unemployed or at risk of contamination

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Last month Lurvin Lizardo was cleaning five Tampa homes a week, charging $100 each. Last week she cleaned only three, wearing gloves and a face mask, taking extra steps to disinfect her surroundings.

She’s now unemployed. All of her clients canceled her housekeeping service as the novel coronavirus has kept families cooped up at home and wary of anyone coming inside.

Lizardo, 48, understands the need for precaution, and the risk inherent in visiting different houses each day not knowing whether she or her clients carry the disease.

But efforts to contain the virus’ spread have upended the already precarious world of domestic workers in Florida, leaving several without pay or legal recourse and others in danger on the frontlines.

“This is hard,” Lizardo said, struggling to hold back tears.

She’s been a housekeeper in Tampa for more than 17 years. In all that time the toughest stretches were usually during a hurricane when she’d be out of work for two, maybe three days max. The storms always passed and there was always plenty of cleanup to do.

This time, there’s no clue when she’ll get back to work. And no work means no pay.

Domestic workers like housekeepers often have no paid sick leave or vacation time. Those who work independently such as Lizardo, acquiring clients on their own without representation from an agency, have even fewer lifelines.

In 2018 Florida employed the second highest number of maids and housekeepers in the country, roughly 80,900 workers according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 9,070 were located in the metropolitan area that includes Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

Many of these domestic workers are undocumented meaning they can’t file for unemployment to tide them over in the days, weeks, or even months it will take to quell COVID-19’s spread.

Yaquelin Lopez, 52, a housekeeper in Tamarac originally from Bolivia recently became a U.S. resident, granting her some peace of mind as she copes with losing all her clients this month. But she frets over her unemployed housekeeping colleagues in Broward County who still have no legal residency. They can’t easily find alternative work, and with orders to stay at home they can’t resort to plan B of selling food or wares on the street.

“There’s no way out of this,” she said. “It’s a nightmare.”

On March 16 the National Domestic Workers Alliance nonprofit launched a Coronavirus Care Fund with the goal of raising $4 million to support 10,000 workers.

“Domestic workers are being forced to navigate this crisis alone and without a safety net,” said Ai-jen Poo, the nonprofit’s executive director in a statement. “Donations to the Coronavirus Care Fund will provide emergency assistance to nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers who need help right now, giving them the stability they need to stay home and be a part of the solution to this crisis.”

Patricia Ugarte, owner of the small business Florida Housekeeping Inc. in Tampa, sacrificed stability for the sake of public health.

She suspected things would go south as she monitored news of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Hoping to delay the inevitable, she pushed up housekeeping appointments a week in advance each week, squeezing out as much work and pay for her staff as she could.

But given her older clientele and the rising number of cases in Florida, Ugarte conferred with her staff and clients and reached the unanimous decision to shut down to keep everyone safe.

She now only hopes that government officials will follow suit with a shutdown order for the state.

“The longer they are waiting to do this the longer it’s going to take for us to recover,” she said.

When Sureya Martell, 48, from Cuba got Ugarte’s call on Friday with news of the business shutting down, she immediately felt relieved. Over the last few weeks she had grown concerned about catching the virus and passing it on to her elderly and pregnant clients.

But then the reality of unemployment sank in. She had already been forced to keep her elderly mother away from the house and wasn’t allowed to go visit her brother who is recovering from a stroke. Now she has to contend with figuring out how to put food on the table.

“Everything came down all at once,” she said.

Wilmarie Bosques, 40, from Puerto Rico, who has worked for Florida Housekeeping for 11 years, is wracked with anxiety now that she has lost her livelihood.

“I’m the pillar of my home and my world is falling apart,” she said.

Larger maid agencies aren’t exempt from the struggle. Maid Brigade Tampa Bay, the local franchise of an Atlanta-based company, is losing customers fast with no new referrals, said Carrie Knight, the franchise owner, in an email.

“Our phone rings non-stop from long-term customers who are calling saying that they’re laid off from their company or are just fearful of having anyone in their house at this time,” Knight wrote. “It’s been hard for us to keep up with all the cancellations.”

Then there are the nannies and home-care aides.

Johanna Gamboa, 38, in Fern Park has been raising children in Orlando for the last 10 years, putting her teaching experience from back home in Costa Rica to good use.

But recently, a family she’s been working with for the last 6 years had to send her away after the husband got furloughed and the wife had to self-quarantine.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with my nanny family,” Gamboa said.

She planned on hosting a training workshop for other nannies in the coming weeks but now even that attempt at professional development is off the table.

She’s heard from colleagues that nannies and even home-care aides who have managed to keep clients are growing concerned with each passing day over the amount of exposure they have with the children or elderly they care for. Gamboa is asthmatic and doesn’t want to run any risks with her health.

Lizardo, who for years has been an Honduran activist and who has family there that relies on her remittances, kept telling her Tampa clients this month that she felt healthy. She reminded them that she would keep herself sanitized outside of their homes, making sure to change out of her work clothes as soon she got to her front door.

And while last week they let her in, she said she felt incredibly tense under their watchful gaze.

It was as if they didn’t believe her, she said. As if they were checking for any sign of the virus crossing their threshold.

Her clients told her they would call her back once it all passed over. So now, she waits.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

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