Politics

Uninsured, Unemployed, and Undocumented

Housekeepers in Arizona fight to receive the paychecks they’re owed after being laid off.

A black-and-white photo of a housekeeper pushing a cart.
kadmy/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This story was produced in partnership with Feet in 2 Worlds, a project that brings the work of immigrant journalists to digital news sites and public radio.

When COVID-19 hit Arizona, Rosa didn’t wear a mask on the job—just a pair of disposable gloves. Rosa has worked as a maid in a Phoenix hotel for two decades. She said she rarely gets sick and wasn’t worried about the coronavirus. But she was terrified of being laid off. Now, jobless and afraid of contracting COVID-19, Rosa is also facing the stark reality of poverty and the threat of deportation.

Rosa (who asked that we not use her real name) is from Sinaloa, Mexico. She has no visa nor work authorization.

It’s been more than a month since Rosa was laid off. She finally received her last paycheck after she and the other maids spent seven weeks fighting the manager of the staffing company.

“Since we have no papers, we have no rights,” said Rosa. The company doesn’t offer them benefits, and she doesn’t have health insurance. “I don’t even want to go out because I cannot afford to get sick,” she said.

“We got our last checks one month later. We do not know when we are going to be able to get back to work or if we are still going to have a job,” Rosa said. “I have no other form of income. I need money, I need to work. How am I supposed to pay my bills?”

In early March, when Rosa’s daughter-in-law developed a fever and cough, everyone in the family was scared. Confirmed coronavirus cases were still rare in Arizona, but the young woman worked in a pediatric hospital in Phoenix. Rosa worried about her four grandchildren; she loves them so much. When her daughter-in-law’s test results came back negative, Rosa sighed and thanked God.

That’s also when Rosa realized all the fuss over the coronavirus wasn’t an exaggeration. She couldn’t help but remember a hotel guest who always questioned Rosa’s health before letting her in to clean the room. “It seemed strange to me,” said Rosa. “Now I get it.”

As the days tick by and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey extends self-isolation policies, Rosa feels desperate. She needs to find work, but the hotels are still closed, and no one is hiring. Her savings and her partner’s paycheck are barely enough to pay the rent and buy food.

For the past four weeks, Rosa has stayed home to avoid incurring expenses, catching the coronavirus, or encountering Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who are still conducting some enforcement operations despite the pandemic. A single traffic stop could send her back to Mexico with no possibility of return to the U.S.

In Tucson, 100 miles south of Phoenix, Judith—another housekeeper who was recently laid off—is feeling the same pain. In 2013, she crossed the border with a tourist visa that is valid till 2021, but she hasn’t returned to Mexico in five years. She doesn’t want to risk the life she has built with her family on the U.S. side of the border. Judith (not her real name) is 35 and married with three kids; the youngest is a U.S. citizen. She and her husband dream of legalizing their status. They want their kids to play professional soccer and attend college. But those dreams are now on hold.

Judith says her manager owed her three paychecks, which she finally received more than a month late. Even when the coronavirus restrictions are lifted in Arizona, she doesn’t know if she can get her job back.

“We waited over a month to get paid and they told us that they do not know if they will be rehiring us when the hotels go back to business … that could be late May or June. What are we going to do? What I made in three weeks is not enough to live three months,” Judith said.

Her husband is still working construction in Tucson, but he’s afraid that if the economic downslide continues, he could lose his job too.

Undocumented workers in the U.S. do not have the right to request or use unemployment benefits. During the pandemic, they will not receive financial aid—including the $1,200 stimulus check—from the federal government. U.S. citizens who are married to noncitizens are also barred from receiving a stimulus check. That leaves people like Rosa and Judith without any safety net.

“Even if they do their taxes, there is no special help for unauthorized workers during the pandemic,” Alejandro Pérez, a Phoenix lawyer specializing in labor law, explained. The attorney emphasized that undocumented workers, especially those who don’t speak English, are more vulnerable, and become easy targets for extortion and fraud.

Rosa and Judith don’t know each other, but they work for the same company in two different cities. They both used fake IDs to work. Like other undocumented workers, they contribute to Social Security even though they cannot receive its benefits in a time of need.

“We pay taxes, but we don’t get benefits, not even now, when everybody else is getting help from the government for the coronavirus,” Rosa said.

The Pew Research Center reports that roughly 7.6 million of the 29 million migrant workers in the United States do not have employment authorization. Most of them work with fake IDs or are paid under the table. That means that undocumented immigrants contribute billions to Social Security and Medicare, but they are not eligible to receive these benefits. They pay into the system under someone else’s Social Security number but get nothing back.

In Arizona, undocumented workers cannot file for medical insurance, food stamps, unemployment, or any other public benefits. According to data from Arizona’s Department of Economic Security, 3,500 unemployment claims were processed in the state every week before the coronavirus crisis. In the first week of April, that number rose to almost 130,000 claims. But since Rosa and Judith are undocumented, their cases are not included in those statistics.

Rosa and Judith are starting to feel the emotional impact of the pandemic. Their moods have shifted from sadness to impotence. Their families are feeling it too. With limited resources, the future doesn’t look as bright as the past did.

“The only thing that we can do now is have faith,” Rosa said. “God works in mysterious ways, and he will save us all from poverty and the pandemic.”

“For now, the bravest thing that we can do is hold on and stay at home,” Judith said.

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.