COVID-19: On the frontlines with Erika Chavez

COVID-19 Survey for Workers

The interview  below isn't necessarily typical of all house cleaners, but taking the COVID-19 Survey for Workers can help researchers understand what is. If you've been working during this pandemic, are unemployed or are now doing your job remotely or part time, consider participating in our research project by following one of these links: 

FOR DOMESTIC OR HOME-BASED WORKERS: With the help of our community partner the California Domestic Workers Coalition, a version of this survey has been created for home-based workers providing services like cleaning and caregiving. If you're a domestic worker and would like to participate in this research project, please email Sarina Rodriguez at

This study aims to better understand the health impacts of COVID-19 and is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Erika Chavez

House cleaner, Women’s Collective of San Francisco

Tell us about yourself and your family.

We’re from El Salvador and have been in the United States for five years. My husband lives with me. I also help support my mom and 15-year-old daughter, who are back in my home country. My father passed away recently.

How do you feel being here? Are you comfortable in this country or still learning how to navigate things?

I’m used to being here. My family has had at least one other family member in the United States for the past 20 to 30 years. We have not all been here at the same time, but I know the San Francisco area well.

Before the pandemic, what was a typical day like at your job? What were things you enjoyed, and now, the things you miss most?

I miss being able to go to houses the way I used to. Before the pandemic I could clean and do my job with dedication, passion and love. Now my job feels strange. I miss being able to go to houses with my coworkers. Our group staggers its time at each home [to reduce the risk of getting sick]. Occasionally, there are one or two other house cleaners with me, but we don’t work closely together.

It’s also not the same because when I walk in, I’m afraid. There are no labor codes protecting house cleaners and I don’t want to get sick.

Right now, we’re fighting for health protections through a workers’ rights bill.  Gavin Newsom has a bill that would offer us many protections and we want him to sign it. [California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 1257 in October 2020. Domestic workers are now in talks with Newsom’s team to come up with similar legislation through SB 321, which they hope will pass in 2021.]

How much has the pandemic affected your work hours?

Right now, we’re not working normally because there are many employers who are afraid, who live alone or who have moved.

It sounds like you’re not working as many hours. Do you have another job to supplement your income during the pandemic?

Yes, I’m also a janitor.

In other ways, how are you affected?

We have to work and our families depend on us but since we’re not protected by law, we aren’t given sick pay or paid time off. For example, I had to take time off when my father got sick and pay for his funeral costs. This really hurt my finances.

That’s why we want Gavin Newsom to sign new legislation. We need to be able to have protection for times like these when the unexpected happens or we’re unable to work for some reason. It’s rare to find a domestic worker that doesn’t need these protections. What I say is: If others can get paid, why can’t we?

Lawmakers are working in their offices while domestic workers are watching their children and taking care of their homes. Some people have been able to work from home during the pandemic, but domestic workers can’t do that.

For me, cleaning houses is my passion, something I do with pride. Domestic workers don’t stop working because of the pandemic, but we do need to continue staying safe and healthy, and our families, too.

Gavin Newsom said that in our line of work we are not ‘essential workers.’ But we’re on the frontlines: During this pandemic and the wildfires, we still work in houses as domestic workers. Yes, we are essential!

It must feel like everything has changed in your job.

Yes, everyone is concerned about the employers, not about us workers. Right now, we have to use our own earnings to buy gloves, masks and suits. We want Cal OSHA to help provide PPE for us. We are human beings. We need to be protected just like every other person, and if we are not safe or get sick, our employers are at risk too, since they also have jobs and need to do their work safely. So, protections for everyone not only would benefit us, but would also benefit our employers. We need these protections, and we need them today.

I have been learning how to protect myself. La Colectiva [the Women’s Collective of San Francisco] has been helping by giving workers coverings. But what we also have to think about is how we can protect our families as well.

La Colectiva is giving you things like masks, gloves, etc.? Or do you have to shop for your own PPE?

La Colectiva is made up of many different groups, and sometimes on Zoom, they share with us information about our human rights, and guidance on how to wear PPE equipment like gloves, masks, everything. Sometimes we receive donations, but we still have to buy our own PPE, independently from La Colectiva. But with the California bill, we’d be provided with all of that.

What are things that people don’t know about you that you’d like them to?

I just want people to know that I’m passionate, loving, honest and sincere. I think it’s important to defend human rights, especially for immigrants, other domestic workers and people who’ve had their rights violated. I want our voices respected. I want the truth and protections that all humans deserve.

I think Americans are surprised how badly we’ve been managing this pandemic. So, I would love to hear what you think – being someone who recently came from another country – what was your expectation of the way our government would handle the pandemic?

I was surprised at the response in the US to COVID-19. Things are worse in El Salvador, but I expected things to go better in the US. With everyone being touched by the pandemic, I put my faith in God. I pray to Him every day. It’s been eight months with this pandemic, and we are becoming accustomed to whatever happens. There’s only so much we can do without God.

Is there anything you’d like to change about your job or within your job to make you feel safer and more protected at work? If there was something you could change about your occupation right now, what would it be?

Health protections. At least to have information on who else has gone into the house before we clean them. If I’m being allowed to go into a house, [I want to know] if other workers have been in there so I can leave it alone for a bit.

To clarify: you’d like the information about other employees who have been in the room before you?

Yes, in order to maintain social distance. Also, to track whether or not they are sick. In La Colectiva, we are getting tested, so I know whether I’m sick or not. It should be a requirement for the employer to test the employees. In order to establish more trust between employer and employees, and employees and employees, you have to test for germs and exposure for the first cleaner and the second cleaner who enters a house.

As an employee, I have to notify my workplace if I get positive test result. That happened to me, and it’s for my own protection as well as for others. And it’s up to my employers to get tested too, and to notify me if I am at risk, and vice versa. That all requires lots of trust between employers and employees.

For domestic workers it’s on our conscience to go get the test [for COVID], and our employers should be able to ask us to see our results. I have my test results so that if anyone asks I can say that I am negative, or leave if I am positive.

We’ve heard domestic workers are being hired to do wildfire clean up in people’s homes, too.

We are some of the most affected workers when it comes to wildfires. There are some of us who are getting sick, have asthma or concerns about cancer, and don’t have protections.  

The air quality in the Bay Area has been so bad and we don’t have any way to protect ourselves from the chemicals in the air from the smoke. When there is ash falling on us and the air quality is really bad, it’s horrible. It affects everyone.

How have the wildfires and smoke directly impacted your life?

My employer cancelled my work because of the bad air quality. I lost work and wasn’t paid because I don’t have benefits.

What concerns do you have about the future?

I have many concerns because the situation here keeps getting worse and worse. My daughter still has to study, and now I have to think about supporting my mother. So that’s two families to worry about: Those back home and those right here… For me, my future is very worrisome.

How has your daughter been coping?

She’s been affected a lot by the pandemic. I’m trying to support her as much as I can, but the passing of her grandfather has made things even harder for her. In terms of school, I can’t help her with her studies. Instead, I try and keep her motivated by telling her to push herself and keep moving forward. I thank God she’s in the 9th grade and on track to graduate! Her grandmother and I are very happy about that.

My mother always has told me to keep pushing myself as well, and hopefully my daughter will return to school in-person soon. I keep reminding myself to carry on. And I remind her that she needs to focus on her studies. My husband and I tell her to keep up the good work and together we’ll move forward. Right now, her studies keep her driven, but also the pandemic and wildfires are making things harder for her. It affects her deeply, but she has my mother’s strength within her.

That’s very sweet. Is there anything positive that’s happened during this pandemic?

I’ve been able to connect with La Colectiva. We are able to continue our advocacy work via Zoom while maintaining social distance. And personally, my family and I are blessed to not have been too badly affected. We still have our house and food on the table, thank God. I thank God for keeping us safe and for everything He’s provided us.

And one last message I have is for Gavin Newsom: Please help us.

Here in San Francisco we are fighting for our own bill to protect workers in the city. It has the support of La Colectiva and many other domestic workers. Hopefully it also passes.

Jennifer Biddle and Sarina Rodriguez conducted this interview in November 2020. Biddle is a science writer and video producer working in digital media. Her film Waking Up to Wildfires was nominated for an Emmy. Rodriguez is a junior specialist and recent UC Davis graduate with interests in equitable health access, community-based participatory research, rural community development and public health policy.