During the 2018 Woolsey wildfire in California, Vicenta Martinez cleaned houses in Malibu directly in the eye of the fast-moving fire. As Martinez toiled in one family’s yard trying to clean up ash, they watched from inside while she inhaled smoke, her eyes growing red and watery. Her employer never asked about her well-being or even offered her a glass of water, Martinez said.
In areas of California impacted by wildfires, day laborers and domestic workers like Martinez are vital. Residents in these communities informally hire immigrants to ensure the safety, security, and well-being of their families and properties. But this same population of workers was cast aside in 2018 with almost no guarantees of economic or safety protections after laboring in the shadows and helping residents “battle flames, escape from harm’s way, and cleanup properties soon after the immediate fire risks subsided,” according to a report by the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California, an organization supporting this workforce. Domestic workers and their allies are now taking lessons they learned from the wildfire and applying them to the pandemic, demanding basic labor protections.