KALW Public Radio, By Teresa Cotsirilos
Domestic workers are using lessons learned from California’s wildfires to support their communities through the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re also pushing for legislation that could protect workers in future disasters.
When the Tubbs Fire burned through Santa Rosa in 2017, Socorro Diaz started losing work. She cleans houses for a living, and when several of her employers’ homes burned to the ground, she didn’t know how she was going to pay her rent. So she picked up jobs where she could. “I cleaned all the ash out of certain properties,” she says. “Homes that hadn’t burned to the ground but were close to ones that had.”
Socorro is one of dozens of domestic workers across California who’ve shoveled wildfire ash out of houses like this. Wildfire ash can be toxic, but a previous KALW investigation found that many domestic workers are not provided with masks, gloves, or other safety gear by their employers. Socorro says her employer didn’t give her any either. She remembers her head throbbing as she worked; at one point, her nose started bleeding. When the job was over, she says her doctor prescribed her an inhaler to treat the respiratory problems she developed. Now, Socorro’s sheltering in place with her family, trying to scrapbook and distract herself. The Tubbs Fire was bad, but this pandemic? Socorro says it’s worse.
“At least during the wildfire, you could go outside, even with all the smoke,” she says. Now, she doesn’t have any work at all. When California issued its shelter-in-place order, Socorro abruptly lost all fifteen of her regular clients. Several of her employers offered to keep paying her, but she still hasn’t received checks from two of them. Most of them offered to rehire her when the pandemic’s over, but right now, that’s not much help.