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These days, I am largely unemployed. Normally, I am on the road, speaking at colleges and universities and other organizations — but during a pandemic, proximity is a problem. Like a great many others, I am home all the time, writing (or pretending to write), attending meetings via Zoom, and making judgments about the glimpses of other people’s homes I see in the fuzzy little windows on my computer screen. It’s surreal that this is what work has become for nonessential workers, but whether people are in cubicles or sitting at home in jorts, they are going to have work problems for which they need solutions.
Over the past 32 years, I have worked as a dishwasher, bartender, telemarketer, student loan consolidator, adult video store clerk, writer, editor and university professor. In each of these jobs, there have been ill-advised romances, people leaving food in the refrigerator too long, petty drama, endless gossip, too much work for too little compensation, inadequate resources, unfortunate potlucks and terrible bosses. Whether it’s in a seedy back room covered in questionable fluids or in a humid, malodorous kitchen or in the ivory tower, people are always going to have problems at work because… people. Some of these problems are mundane, some are absurd, some are existential and some have grave implications. I am here for all your work concerns, from the stupid to the sublime.
Especially now, I am eager to hear about your professional nemeses, incompetent bosses, moral dilemmas and desires for a raise — with the understanding that sometimes, the right answer and the realistic answer are two different things. I have smart and hilarious shoes to fill, coming in on the heels of the one and only Caity Weaver. I will do my best. I suspect I am the oldest person yet to be your Work Friend. As you might expect, I will be bringing the Gen X weariness that comes along with knowing reality bites. See what I did there?
Let’s get into it.
I have a wonderful cleaning lady (from Mexico) who comes twice a month to my condo. Maria is about 40 and is raising two young children, plus she has a large extended family. She may be in contact with many people in her family and work settings.
My question: Is it safe to keep employing her? I am home when she cleans, so I stay in the guest bedroom/office with the door closed. After she leaves, I use sanitizing wipes on counters, door knobs, toilet handles, etc. to remove any remaining bacteria from items she has touched. I leave her check out and I don’t stand close to her when we speak.
Maria and her sister live across town in a high Covid-19 suburb. Her ZIP code has the highest number of cases in this region (71), as of May 5, according to the state. My ZIP code has 32 cases.
Many other people have canceled her services, so I know Maria needs the work.
— Anonymous, Oregon
You are asking the wrong questions, which is callous at best. You should be asking if it is safe for Maria to be around you. Do you keep your home properly sanitized so she won’t contract Covid-19 when she is working? Do you wear a mask when speaking to her so you don’t infect her? Do you provide her with personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and disinfectant wipes to ensure her safety as she works on your behalf and imperils herself and her young children?
You seem to be proud of how fastidious you are in cleaning surfaces Maria has just cleaned without any consideration for her well-being. Maria does not need the work she does for you and her other clients. She needs the money you pay for her labor. No, you cannot safely continue to have her clean your condo, because you cannot guarantee that you will not infect her. She has no way of knowing how rigorous you are being with your social distancing — although I am sure she has a crystal-clear sense of your hygiene.
This pandemic has revealed just how pronounced the class fractures in our society are. You’re worrying about getting sick from your “wonderful” cleaning lady while she is probably worrying about how to support her family while staying safe and healthy. She is probably dealing with what millions of Americans are facing right now: They can choose to support their family or they can stay safe and healthy, but they cannot afford to do both. This state of affairs is a national disgrace. It is your privilege that shapes what you get to worry about and it is a lack of privilege that shapes what she must worry about.
I really want you to consider the mental gymnastics you’ve performed trying to convince yourself it is safe to maintain your lifestyle as you prefer. You have looked up actual statistics. You can see, plainly, that Maria is at risk, but you’re only worried about yourself. Now, you have every right to be worried about your health. And you may be someone who cannot clean her own home for one reason or another, in which case this is an essential rather than a luxury service, and you have to weigh the risks of exposure for both you and Maria against your personal circumstances.
But many people’s professional and personal lives are possible only because of the house cleaners, assistants, nannies and other domestic workers who do the work we tell ourselves we don’t have time to do. There is no shame in that if you are paying an ethical wage and treating people with the respect and dignity they deserve. There is no shame in that if you acknowledge that you are not, in fact, doing it all, but instead have a robust support system that contributes to your well-being. What is shameful is how people who perform what many consider to be essential work have been so readily abandoned.
Here we are. During this time of Covid-19, part of treating people with respect and dignity is making sure the individuals who make your lifestyle possible are still being paid, whether they are physically working for you or not. If you could afford domestic support before the pandemic, you can afford it now, if you haven’t lost your income.
You have the opportunity to do the right thing here. Pay Maria what you would normally pay her for as long as the self-isolation lasts, without requiring her to come to your home and endanger herself. If you insist that Maria work during the pandemic, and if she is willing (or has no choice but) to take on that risk, then double her pay, provide her with P.P.E., wear a mask and gloves when she is in your home so you do not infect her, and tip generously every single time she works.
Finally, why do you mention that Maria is from Mexico? In addition to everything I’ve suggested, you should also take some time to sit and contemplate your economic privilege and the touch of xenophobia implied by your question. I send Maria my warmest regards and sincerely hope she is happy and healthy during such a challenging time.
Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at email@example.com.