Around the world, millions of domestic workers were abruptly sent away when coronavirus shutdowns and social distancing orders were imposed. Now as communities begin to reopen, many people are wondering when it will be safe to open their houses again to domestic helpers.
If you are an employer worried about the health risks of letting house cleaners, nannies and health aides back into your quarantined home, remember that it’s the worker who faces the biggest risk of being exposed to your germs and those of the other households where they work. Taking practical steps to keep the worker healthy, including providing masks and gloves, opening windows, solving transportation challenges and offering paid sick leave, will lower risk for everyone in the home.
“The risk is definitely tipped toward them getting sick and not necessarily being the one to infect you,” said Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer at Yale University and managing director of Pharos Global Health Advisors, a nonprofit advising communities and businesses on how to reopen safely. “There is way more evidence that these essential workers who are in frequent contact with people are the ones getting sick — not the customers.”
Communication and trust are essential. Domestic workers often don’t feel comfortable raising issues about health, safety and pay, so the employer should start the conversation. The best way to keep your family safe is to promise sick pay and encourage workers to stay home when they feel ill or have a fever or any respiratory symptoms. Reassure your employee that you won’t dock pay if you or someone in the home becomes ill and the worker needs to stay away. Home temperature checks are an option, although lack of fever is not a reliable indicator of health. If temperature checks are used, everyone in the house should take part.
“The trust has to go both ways,” Dr. Soe-Lin said. “You have to tell your housekeeper when someone in your home isn’t feeling well.”
In the United States alone, about 2.2 million people, most of them women, are employed as domestic workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. When the pandemic prompted shutdowns and social distancing orders, about 70 percent of domestic workers surveyed lost all wages and jobs, said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Although some home employers continued to pay nannies and house cleaners during the shutdown, “It was rare,” said Ms. Poo.
Now as lockdowns are ending, many workers are not being rehired and are discovering that the glut of workers means prospective employers are paying less than before the pandemic, said Ms. Poo.
People are most likely to catch coronavirus when they spend extended time in close contact with an infected person in an enclosed space with poor ventilation. For workers whose jobs don’t require human contact — like house cleaners, pet sitters and home repair technicians — residents should leave the home while the worker is inside completing the job. Open as many windows and doors as possible to improve ventilation, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech.
If it’s not practical to leave the house, everyone should stay in a closed room or separate part of the house where the worker isn’t expected to clean or perform other work.
“The safest approach is to have the household members be out of the house so there’s no direct person-to-person interaction,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Do the payment remotely, and you’ve substantially reduced risk with no in-person contact.”