When Doling Out the Vaccine, Do Not Forget Domestic Workers

Maria Del Carmen, a housekeeper in Philadelphia

As the Covid-19 vaccine makes its way across America, the biggest question is, “when can I get it?” States must make difficult choices when deciding who can receive the limited amounts of vaccines currently available. As the rollout marches on, domestic workers must be one of the first groups to get the vaccine. The news from today has been heartening. In Kansas, one of the first five employees to be vaccinated at St. Francis hospital was a housekeeper in the COVID-19 unit. In Massachusetts, the first employee in the VA Bedford Healthcare system to get the vaccine was a housekeeper in environmental management services. It is good to see that domestic workers are being recognized as a priority for the vaccine in institutional settings. 

Domestic workers have been hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the first week of April 2020, 72% of domestic workers in the US reported losing all of their clients. Domestic workers are desperate for work and, since they are excluded from most labor protections, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. The CDC recommends that workers in essential and critical industries be prioritized for the vaccine when supply is limited. This leaves interpretation up to individual states, and they must recognize domestic workers as essential workers. 

While domestic workers like nannies may not be explicitly mentioned as essential workers, a feminist understanding of production underscores how crucial they are. Domestic labor is the cog that keeps the machine called society running. While some may not recognize it, domestic works is a multi-million dollar industry that goes mostly ignored. This industry is often seen as unworthy because, as explained by Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein in Caring for America, “Black, immigrant, and poor white women long have undertaken these jobs; indeed men who engage in them usually earn less than other men, experiencing the costs of racialized feminization.” They also cite “the way the state chooses to structure it” as another reason for the lack of respect given to care work. 

Nannies and housekeepers are not considered essential workers because the state undervalues domestic labor. Since the state plays a large role in devaluing care work, active steps such as ascribing care workers a higher priority for the COVID-19 vaccine will prevent domestic workers from falling through the cracks. If domestic workers are vaccinated on the same schedule as everyone else, how can we expect any sort of economic recovery? It will be impossible to get people back into their offices without adequate childcare. This will also prevent care shortages if the number of vaccinated people in other industries outpaces vaccinated care workers. People will likely start requesting care workers be vaccinated before coming into people’s homes. If the demand for domestic workers outpaces the vaccinations, many workers could be pressured into taking jobs in an unsafe environment. This issue speaks to our country’s need for a new understanding of domestic labor. While it is excellent to see housekeepers included in these initial vaccinations, we mustn’t forget about domestic workers as the vaccination rollout continues.

By Katy Ronkin

(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Hannah Yoon)