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“Domestic workers arrive to smoke, ash,” the headline in the Los Angeles Times read on October 29, 2019. Unaware of mandatory evacuations from a fire sweeping through exclusive enclaves near the Getty Museum, domestic workers had trudged up deserted streets and through particle-filled air not wanting to be late to their jobs; losing even one day’s pay could make it impossible to afford housing, food, or medicine. They discovered that their employers had fled hours earlier without notifying them or advising them to stay away from the evacuation zone.
Such scenes have become more salient in recent years. Similarly, in 2018, amid a massive mudslide that stranded hundreds of people and killed over twenty, home aides in affluent Montecito, CA, sheltered in place to care for the elderly. Domestic workers remained behind to clean and tend to the grounds. Some were directed to guard property while everyone who could escaped. For all the reporting on structures destroyed and neighborhoods uprooted, few have questioned what happens to household workers when their workplaces are in the middle of disaster zones. Most only get paid when they show up. Many lack health insurance. Those who are undocumented may be afraid to enter evacuation centers. Some cannot access or understand emergency alerts, since governments have failed to address linguistic and cultural gaps in their response systems. Those who are live-in employees depend on their jobs for shelter.
While care workers—predominantly immigrants and women of color—play a critical role in the economy by enabling their employers’ own economic participation, their low wages compel them to labor even amid grave danger. Thus, domestic workers themselves have built a movement to improve health and safety protections in their workplaces, and disseminate information to workers. While some narrowly associate the “Green New Deal” with clean manufacturing and environmentally friendly infrastructure, domestic and care workers draw important links between environmental and economic justice. They bring sustainability into the home—both figuratively by maintaining daily life and aiding elders, and materially by doing so healthfully. Their efforts to eliminate toxic household cleaning products and improve fire safety communicate a message at the heart of the Green New Deal: that better working conditions and environmental protection are intertwined. Continue reading