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Organizer: Domestic Workers Make All Work Possible, But the Coronavirus Relief Bill Discounts Them

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Image Credit: Damayan Migrant Workers Association

To talk more about how the coronavirus relief bills have affected essential workers, we speak with an organizer in Queens, New York, the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic. “Things are being done, but it’s not enough to serve the domestic workers who are essential workers and keep this city running,” says Riya Ortiz, lead organizer and case manager for the nonprofit Damayan Migrant Workers Association in New York City.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. To talk more about how the bills in Washington have affected essential workers, let’s bring into the conversation Riya Ortiz, lead organizer, case manager for the nonprofit Damayan Migrant Workers Association in New York City.

Queens is the epicenter of the epicenter. Every time we talk about the number of deaths, for example, in New York City, Riya, we actually do not actually know the numbers, because in New York City alone, we’re talking about hundreds of people — 200, 300 people — a day that are dying in their homes, that are not being counted. And all too often this is happening in Queens, the most diverse borough in the world. Talk about how the coronavirus relief bills affect the people that you represent, domestic workers, who they are, what’s happening to them right now.

RIYA ORTIZ: Hi. Great. Good morning, Amy. Thank you for that question. I’m actually joining you from the epicenter of the epicenter, in Queens. I live in Jackson Heights, Queens, in New York City, a few blocks away from Elmhurst Hospital, the hospital with the most number of infected patients in the entire U.S. The wailing sirens have become a staple in our community. You know, you hear it in the morning, at night, rain or shine.

I also work with Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a grassroots organization based in New York City that serves and empowers Filipino domestic workers — babysitters, elder caregivers and housekeepers — and other low-wage Filipino migrant workers, such as restaurant bussers and deli workers. They care for the elderly and the children, the most vulnerable during the pandemic, in the homes of their employers. This makes domestic work essential work. Domestic work makes all work possible.

In our experience, on the first two weeks of the pandemic, we interviewed about 80 of our members, and we found out that 65% of the 80 were fired, laid off or had their hours reduced. That’s about seven out of 10 of our members. Sixty-five out of the 80 are also labor-trafficking survivors, who were trafficked by ambassadors and diplomats who work in the consulates and the United Nations, or were trafficked by placement agencies, hotels, resort owners and rich professionals. They were already not doing well before this started. The pandemic just made things severely worse for them.

The pandemic also unmasked the government’s true nature. Capitalism has relegated our communities, in what communities will survive and die, who will eat and not eat, who will receive care and not receive care. And my community was branded as one of the communities that will die. You know, we found out very quickly that either our community members will die a swift, painful death due to the coronavirus in their homes, like what you mentioned, or die — or die because of hunger or physical, mental and emotional stress, because they’re not working. Day in and day out, our members are agonized, where they will get the money for food, for rent, or money to send back home, because their families are all also struggling in the Philippines.

So, one example is a caregiver who was trafficked by a Turkish diplomat. She was caring for this elderly patient. You know, she was very careful that no virus would come in the house. She would care for him, like bathe him, even wipe the bottom of his feet just to make sure he’s very clean. But the elderly got infected through his speech therapist. And then, in turn, she was infected. So she was sick for almost two or three weeks now. She had to quarantine in their home. But because she lives with her husband and two kids, we just assume that the entire family was infected. She had no insurance, no income and no safety net, that’s being given to the rest of the American public. So, instead, Damayan had to come in and make sure that they have groceries. So, you know, we do hot food delivery. We gave them groceries, money for grocery shopping. We referred them to a doctor, who closely monitored their situation. Our organizers, who are also labor-trafficking survivors, were doing daily check-ins to make sure that they’re OK. They slept with the lights open, because they were afraid that they would die while sleeping. You know, that’s the situation of the elderly caregivers who are caring for the most vulnerable in this society.

AMY GOODMAN: Riya, I wanted to turn to another domestic worker. This is Arlene, a Filipina nanny, caregiver. She lived in with her employer at the beginning of the pandemic. The employer moved to the Hamptons in March, bringing her with him. After a month, she says, she asked for time off.

ARLENE: There, the time that I was there in Hamptons, my work hours was changed from 8 a.m. until 10:30 or 11 p.m. … If you are living with your employers, it’s hard to get an off, even if you want it and even if they say that, yes, you can. But still, when you are there, you are going to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Arlene, speaking at a Zoom news conference of Damayan, Riya Ortiz’s organization. Tell us more, Riya.

RIYA ORTIZ: Yes. So, Arlene is actually one of our board members. And she worked for an employer who, like the many rich people in New York City, fled New York and went to the Hamptons. Right? But, you know, they know that they cannot survive this pandemic without their workers, so they brought Arlene with them, like many of our members. But there, she had no security. She was working day in and day out.

Another member, who was asked strongly by her employer to work live-in, was forced to work seven days a week, 10 hours a day. So that’s 70 hours a week. But, as we know, workers, even undocumented, are still protected by the law. They can only work 44 hours live-in. So that means that 26 hours were not being paid overtime, right? So I had to assist her and make her choose: Do you want to live in this situation or stay in this situation, or go home with no income? She chose to leave, because the employer was actually a doctor in Mount Sinai and was sick, you know, with fever, along with the entire family. You know, they wanted to make sure that she wasn’t bringing in the virus in their home, but they were already sick. So, she had to really think about her family, if she would like to keep working with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And the stimulus bills, the effect they have on the kind of people that you’re representing, who are — we’re not talking about a couple dozen people. We’re talking about thousands of people. I mean, if you go to Corona, you can see, on a night, 20 blocks long of people lining up to get food. Where do the stimulus packages play in here, Riya?

RIYA ORTIZ: Right, yes. So, those are our members, too. Many of our members are undocumented. They’re not eligible for unemployment insurance. They’re not eligible for a stimulus package. They’re not going to get $1,200 in the mail. You know, we have to rely on resources that Damayan is raising. So, the National Domestic Workers Alliance is actually giving $400 financial assistance to any domestic worker who’s struggling right now. So we’re making sure that members of our community is availing that. We’re also doing food delivery, because, you know, they’ve been out of work for almost six weeks. So, there is not — things are being done, but it’s not enough to serve the workers, the domestic workers, who are essential workers and keep the city running.

AMY GOODMAN: Riya Ortiz, I want to thank you so much for being with us. She is a domestic worker organizer, lead organizer, case manager for the nonprofit Damayan Migrant Workers Association in New York City. Newsweek called her one of the “Heroes of the Pandemic.”

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