President Trump’s return to the White House and defiant mask removal despite still being treated for COVID-19 has threatened the health of the mostly older, Black and Brown household staff, says domestic worker advocate Ai-jen Poo, senior adviser to Care in Action. “These are essential workers who have been keeping him and his family safe and caring for them, and he showed a complete and utter disregard for their health and safety,” she says. At least three White House housekeepers and one other member of the residence staff were recently infected, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, thousands of domestic workers face dire consequences from the failure to pass a new coronavirus stimulus bill, and have organized to support each other in the meantime.
AMY GOODMAN: “How many of your staff are sick? Do you think you might be a superspreader, Mr. President?” Those were the questions a reporter shouted at President Trump as he left Walter Reed hospital last week after being hospitalized for three nights with COVID-19. Trump ignored the questions, then flew to the White House, where he marched up to the balcony. In a reality-style wave, he saluted, took off his mask, appeared out of breath, then went inside — unmasked.
Trump’s defiant mask removal threatened the household staff, a majority of whom are older people of color. Little attention has been paid in the media to how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the health of domestic workers, not only at the White House, but across the world.
The New York Times reports three White House housekeepers and one other member of the residence staff were recently infected. The Times reports the workers were told to use, quote, “discretion” in discussing their infection. Public health experts have expressed alarm as Trump has repeatedly threatened the health of staff around him over the past week, from leaving the hospital while still being medicated, to returning to the Oval Office while still infected, to holding a rally on the White House grounds on Saturday that was not socially distanced.
Later in the program, we’ll be joined by Charles Allen. His father, Eugene Allen, was portrayed in Lee Daniels’ film The Butler for his work serving eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. But first, we speak to Ai-jen Poo, senior adviser to Care in Action, which is dedicated to fighting for dignity and fairness for the millions of domestic workers in the United States. It’s the 501(c)(4) arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Ai-jen Poo, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. As we watch that defiant act of President Trump, where he took off his mask, turned around and walked into the White House, we know that scores of residence staff are older African Americans and Latinx workers. Can you talk about your response and what it signifies to you?
AI-JEN POO: Look, I think — thank you for having me, Amy. I think we and domestic workers all over this country were watching with horror as we saw the recklessness with which the president was treating his household staff. I mean, these are essential workers who have been keeping him and his family safe and caring for them, and he showed a complete and utter disregard for their health and safety in this context.
And it is, in many ways, the tip of the spear to how he’s been treating essential workers writ large. I mean, here we are seven months into this pandemic, and still no Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights, still no hazard pay, right? And here are the — in his house, right?
Domestic work is all about — it really is a question of power here. When your workplace is someone else’s home, there’s an incredible imbalance of power and a tremendous amount of fear that domestic workers have in asserting their rights and advocating for themselves, out of fear of losing their jobs and their livelihood. Now, there could be no other house in this country where the imbalance of power is more severe than that between the president of the United States and his housekeeping staff, and I think he’s been abusing that power.
AMY GOODMAN: How do we find out who has been infected? We know that about three dozen of his professional staff have been infected. They’re high-profile people, like the press secretary. Almost the whole White House media staff has been, and then a number of journalists who are covering the White House have been infected, at least four or five. We know his top senior adviser, Stephen Miller. We know the names of all these people. But right before the White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany herself said she tested positive — I believe that was last Monday — on Sunday, she told reporters at the White House she would no longer be revealing the number or names of people at the White House who tested positive. Now, it’s even harder to find out about those on the residence staff.
AI-JEN POO: Absolutely. There’s 90 housekeeping staff, as far as we know, in the White House, who are charged every day with maintaining the order and the sanity and the safety of the White House itself for the people who live there. And, you know, this entire industry is really defined by its invisibility. People are working behind closed doors. And their work isn’t even seen as real work. It’s still referred to as “help,” right? After so many generations where we understand that this work is essential. And it’s work that’s disproportionately done by women and people of color, women of color, Black and Brown women in particular. And so, all of those factors contribute to the invisibility and the dehumanization of this workforce, which is why it’s so important that we’re vigilant about finding out about the health and the safety and the well-being of those workers in this time. We need transparency. And even more than that, we need protections for these workers.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break. And when we come back, we’ll also be joined by the son of a man who worked in the White House for over eight — for eight presidents. He was the subject of Lee Daniels’ film The Butler. We’re speaking to Ai-jen Poo, senior adviser to Care in Action, dedicated to fighting for dignity and fairness for the millions of domestic workers in the United States. She’s staying with us, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest is Ai-jen Poo, senior adviser to Care in Action, which is dedicated to fighting for dignity and fairness for the millions of domestic workers in the United States, the 501(c)(4) arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, of which Ai-jen Poo is executive director.
If you can talk a little more, nationally, about the kind of dangers that people face who are in the most intimate jobs, many of them essential workers, but who are on the frontlines, in many cases caring for people with COVID, and the kind of protections they have — for example, domestic workers’ bills of rights — and how far we’ve come on these around the country, Ai-jen?
AI-JEN POO: Absolutely. So, this pandemic has hit domestic workers incredibly hard, because domestic workers came into the pandemic with a tremendous amount of insecurity. Eighty-two percent of domestic workers didn’t have a single paid sick day, coming into this pandemic. And what we saw, very early on, in the first week of the shutdown, was dramatic losses in jobs and income, so much so that in March we were holding calls with domestic workers where they were showing us, on their Zoom screens, literally one cent left in their bank account, no ability to put food on their table for their children.
And here we are, seven months into this pandemic, and when you have a situation where, you know, you had no job security, no access to a safety net, and much of the pandemic relief has not reached you, it is a very dire situation. It’s a full-blown depression for domestic workers, who are vacillating now between 38 and 40% unemployment among domestic workers.
And then you have the workers who continue to work through this crisis, like the White House housecleaners, who are providing an essential lifeline to some of the people who are most vulnerable to the virus itself, like older people, people with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses, bringing them food, bringing them medication, providing essential services that are necessary for daily living for these populations of people. And they’re doing so without access to PPE, without healthcare, without hazard pay. So they’re having to pay out of pocket for PPE and COVID testing. And the burden of safety in this time of an unprecedented pandemic is falling on their shoulders, on the shoulders of the people who have the least amount of power and resources to navigate it all.
AMY GOODMAN: What rights do workers have to demand that they be even able to wear protective gear in a situation where they’re told not to? And what are employers’ responsibilities?
AI-JEN POO: Well, that’s the challenge in this industry, is, one, there’s been a long history of systematic exclusion from basic rights and protections, including many health and safety protections, which is why an Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights is so important and so important that it include domestic workers. But also, when you are isolated in a workplace and you have no job security and you — everything that you ask for, you put yourself at risk of losing your job and your livelihood, at a time when you simply cannot afford it. So, the vulnerability and insecurity there cannot be overstated. It is incredibly difficult right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Are the White House residence staff unionized?
AI-JEN POO: I believe that they are government employees, which means that they should be represented by a government union. But I don’t know for sure.
AMY GOODMAN: You, yourself, Ai-jen Poo, lost your grandmother during the pandemic, though not of COVID. Can you talk about your experience of actually being able to see her and what that meant to you?
AI-JEN POO: I mean, my heart goes out to so many people who have been separated from loved ones who are ill and dying. I was able to go and visit my grandmother, who passed away at 94 on Mother’s Day of natural causes. And I was told by my family that if I wanted to say goodbye, that I needed to come, even in the midst of the pandemic. And so I masked up and quarantined and went and saw her, and I was able to hold her hand every single day for 10 days in order to say goodbye and to begin the process of grieving.
And I cannot imagine — it really meant the world to me to have somebody who cared for me, from my childhood through my whole life, be able to hold her hand and say goodbye and tell her how much I loved her. And I just can’t imagine what it’s been like for the 215 — now — thousand families who have lost their granddaughters, their grandmothers, their sisters, their best friends, and to not be able to appropriately grieve in this time of incredible crisis. I just can’t imagine, when I think about what my family has been through.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, our condolences to you and your family. Finally, the idea that a second stimulus package has not been passed, the consequences of this on the most vulnerable? The National Domestic Workers Alliance provided funding to domestic worker organizations around the country. How ironic that at this point you have smaller organizations providing food and funding, and yet the most able to afford and the larger employers not doing this. What this means, and the pressure on groups like yours, and what it means for people not to get more money right now as so many tens of millions lose their jobs?
AI-JEN POO: I mean, what we saw was, really early on in the crisis, incredible devastation. I mean, you had people who were working paycheck to paycheck, so there was no money, no savings to stock up on groceries or supplies. The level of food insecurity and housing insecurity is just unfathomable. It’s like nothing I ever could have imagined in my 25 years of doing this work.
So, our Coronavirus Care Fund has been providing emergency cash assistance to domestic workers in need, because we knew that we couldn’t wait for government to act. And seven months later, it still hasn’t. Government funding still hasn’t reached the majority of domestic workers in this country. And what they’re using the funds for is groceries, to pay cellphone bills so that their children can stay connected to online learning opportunities. Literally, the basic, fundamental human needs of survival are at stake right now. And the impact on children and families is just devastating in this time.
So, the Senate — shame on the Senate for not moving on actual relief that can reach every American. Every family, including immigrant families, deserves relief and safety in this time, because they will be a part of our recovery as a country. And so, I just — I call upon the Senate, I call upon the White House, to move on relief so that we can start moving towards recovery in this time.
AMY GOODMAN: Ai-jen Poo, I want to thank you so much for being with us. And again, our condolences to your family on the loss of your grandmother. Ai-jen is senior adviser to Care in Action, which is dedicated to fighting for dignity and fairness for the millions of domestic workers across the country, the 501(c)(4) arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.