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Domestic workers have always been on the frontlines, COVID-19 just made it clear
By Camilla Bradford
Published June 12, 2020

Camilla Bradford (Courtesy Photo)

As an In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) provider who cares for seniors and people with disabilities, I am a caregiver on the frontlines of this pandemic. As a Black woman, I am also at a higher risk of dying should I become infected with COVID-19.

This dangerous intersection of race and occupational hazard is not unique to me. The “essential” workforce contains a disproportionate percentage of black people. Once again, we are the glue keeping this country together while little is being done to protect our health and safety. Along with our heroic black doctors, nurses and researchers helping to fight this pandemic, many black people are out there delivering food, stocking shelves, and maintaining our utilities; all the while knowing their risk of death from the virus is exponentially higher than the general public. And, like me, many are caring for others while being left out of considerations for personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies at almost every level of government.

I became a caregiver in 2008, when I left my corporate job to care for my sick mother. When my mother passed away and my brother’s condition worsened, I joined the IHSS program as his full-time caregiver. Now, I provide around-the-clock care for my brother who was diagnosed with a mental disability at a young age. I am also on call for various IHSS clients who do not have enough food, medicine and other necessities and who do not have a live-in caregiver to provide these essential items. The care I provide keeps my community healthy and safe.

Over half a million low income seniors and people with disabilities receive care through the IHSS program. Made up of a workforce that is majority women of color, we grocery shop, cook, clean, drive our clients to appointments, and even perform paramedical services. Now more than ever, our clients depend on us to make it through the week.

I am alarmed at how quickly health inequities, fueled by years of racism, classism and the legacy of slavery, have emerged. We are seeing data from around the country that shows that people in black and brown communities are dying from COVID 19 at disproportionately high rates, likely due to higher incidence of underlying health conditions as well as lack of access to testing and treatment.

Historically, domestic workers have been marginalized and excluded from worker protections specifically because it was work usually done by women of color. It’s a power dynamic that traces back to slave times when Black women were forced to work for slave owners–not only as cooks and housekeepers, but as caregivers for their family members.

Women of color continued to make up the largest share of the domestic workforce for centuries. This holds true even today. Those caring for these IHSS clients, like me, are mostly women (79%) and people of color (63%). We assumed roles as caregivers and wetnurses, and effectively became the backbone of the feminism movement–taking care of middle class women’s households while they struggled to join the workforce and break the glass ceiling. For all the support domestic workers provided to “equality” movements, we were rewarded with exclusionary labor laws that banned us from organizing and shut us out of health and unemployment benefits.

Some things have changed, but many of these exclusionary practices still affect the lives of thousands of California domestic workers today. We still do not have all of the state and federal labor protections afforded to other workers, and now we have been thrust to the frontline of this pandemic with little to no protection or support from the counties that run the IHSS program.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, IHSS caregivers like me were not given any PPE in most counties. That means we did not have access to any N95 masks, gloves, or sanitation supplies, even though we work in the most intimate situations with the most vulnerable populations. It wasn’t until caregivers in unions intervened directly with each county and at the state level that we were able to get access to a limited supply, but it’s simply not enough. Considering the critical services we provide, it’s shameful that we had to remind these local governments that we, too, need protection.

The reality for many caregivers is that we are underpaid, overworked and disregarded. That needs to change now.

We need to be paid a wage we can live on, and, as many of us are paid minimum wage or have a contract based on the minimum wage, we need to ensure the minimum wage increase to $14, scheduled for January 1, 2021, is not delayed or postponed. It is essential that those most disproportionately impacted by this pandemic can pay our bills and feed our families.

We are an integral part of the healthcare system and we keep over half a million vulnerable clients from unnecessary hospitalization and costly institutionalization. Now we are truly  risking our lives to do it. Our position in the labor market is a legacy of the worst crime in American history. We deserve, at the very least, recognition of what we contribute.

Camilla Bradford is an IHSS home caregiver in the Inland Empire working on the frontlines of this pandemic with virtually no protective equipment. She is a member of United Domestic Workers (AFSCME Local 3930).

 

Categories: COVID-19 | Family | Health | Opinion
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