This former maid turned bestselling author explains why you should keep paying your help now
Updated 4:47 AM ET, Tue April 21, 2020
(CNN)If you had money to pay a house cleaner last month, keep paying them this month even as you shelter in place and can't allow outsiders into your home.
That's how former maid turned bestselling author Stephanie Land wants people to support domestic workers, who are often invisible in American life, during the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2017, Land spoke to CNN about her years of raising two daughters alone while living in poverty, cleaning houses and going to school. At the time, it was a few years after she'd finished her English degree at the University of Montana. She was supporting her family as a freelance writer and life was about to accelerate.
In January 2019, the then-40-year-old's memoir "Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive" debuted at number three on the New York Times bestseller list. Former President Barack Obama listed it as one of his favorite books of 2019, and her life story is the basis for an upcoming Netflix original series.
Now, Land speaks widely about issues affecting domestic workers, single mothers and people living in poverty, and her experience is more relevant than ever. As people cloister in their homes and practice social distancing, 72% of domestic workers report being out of work, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. And 70% said they weren't sure if they'd be re-hired after the pandemic.
Having spent years on her knees scrubbing toilets, Land explains why she thinks you should still pay any domestic workers who help your family -- a category that's far larger than you may think. And she explains how she's using her platform to speak on behalf of maids who, like she once did, endure low wages and poor working conditions to keep America clean.
The following Q&A is lightly edited for length and clarity.
How long did you clean houses and what led you into that type of work?
I started cleaning houses in 2008 and then quit in the beginning of 2014, so about six years off and on. I got into that type of work because of the recession, actually. I just could not find a job. And I'd never had that problem before. I think the reason why I couldn't find a job is because I had to work during daycare hours, traditionally 7 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. I think there was a time that I was averaging about one resume submitted a week, and just could not even get a call back. So I fell into housecleaning full time.
When we talk about domestic workers, what does that mean?
Domestic workers to me are people who essentially do some type of care work, so house cleaners, nannies, home health care aides, and things like that. Hotel workers, anybody who comes in to take care of you in some way. The National Domestic Workers Alliance estimates that there are 2.5 million domestic workers. A large amount of those workers are undocumented. So they don't receive any benefits that a US citizen would receive in the time that we're in now, as people are losing their jobs.
With the pandemic upon us now, how would you recommend that people engage with domestic workers they've previously hired?
I really feel that it's harsh to completely close the door on that relationship. I think if you have someone who has been working in your home, then keep lines of communication open. The National Domestic Workers Alliance just released a study where 72% of domestic workers are now reporting that they're unemployed, and 70% of those workers said that they did not expect to get their job back from those clients who had fired them. So I think if there's any reassurance that you can give, I would try to do that.
But also pay them what you can. I still feel that if it was in your budget last month, if you had house cleaning or care work or something in your budget at the beginning of March and you're able to keep your job and your finances haven't drastically changed, then continue to pay them as long as you're able to or until they're able to get some kind of unemployment or get some kind of other help if they can. They are still a worker in your home. They just can't work right now.
As a house cleaner, I not only felt very invisible, but I felt extremely disposable. That was a more traumatic feeling as far as being a low-wage worker who needs every single dollar in order to survive. That disposable feeling really makes you tread lightly on any decision you make. Because you're constantly in this survival mode.
How would you want clients, or society in general, to treat you now if you were a house cleaner?
With my clients, I would want the lines of communication to still be open, and I think I would want the dignity of being treated like a human being and not necessarily like a member of their family. Just to feel like my client or my employer cares about me and recognizes that before, pre-pandemic, that if I lost a day of work it could mean not being able to pay rent. And now, after not being able to work for three or four weeks, I can't even imagine what that would have been like when I was in that position.
With society, government assistance programs are largely not beneficial to people who get a reduction in hours or are not working. If you're on food stamps, for example, if you don't meet work requirements, you only have three months of any three-year period to do that. And after that you lose food benefits for three years.
I'm thinking about all of these house cleaners who have now been out of work for about a month. What if they had already used up that three month time period and don't qualify for food stamps right now? I would hope on a state level and a federal level that people are taking that into consideration and boosting the SNAP programs and Medicaid and all of those safety net programs to make it an actual safety net.