On a humid August afternoon earlier this year, a middle-aged woman paced the corner of Division Street and Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, assessing a line of immigrant women. The women had congregated on the corner, as they do every day, in the hopes of being picked by local residents to clean their homes. The middle-aged woman appeared ready to leave without making a hire when a young Latin American immigrant anxiously ran up to her.
“Take off your mask and let me see your face,” the potential employer demanded.
Out of breath from the quick run, the younger woman smiled, but did not seem to understand the command. “I said take off the mask,” the older woman repeated, motioning with her hand. The younger woman quickly pulled down her mask, her eyes filled with hope. But the older woman looked her up and down and turned away.
The intersection of Division Street and Marcy Avenue is known as La Parada, or “The Stop.” Located in the heart of Williamsburg’s Hasidic Jewish enclave, the day laborer hub, one of many in New York City, is frequented by undocumented immigrant women from Latin America, as well as from Eastern Europe. The informal, unregulated jobs they find here often leave them vulnerable to abusive working conditions.
Vulnerable to exploitation
For some, La Parada is the gateway to a first job in a new country. For others, it’s a last resort: When you’ve lost your job and your immigration status prevents you from collecting unemployment benefits, La Parada is where you go until you find steady work.
Margarita Gomez first came to La Parada in 2011 after her husband, who is undocumented, lost his job. A friend told her it would be easy to get hired there; all she had to do was show up. But after Gomez was chosen to clean a family’s home, she was surprised to find they expected her to clean on her knees.
“You would kneel on the floor and clean the floors and bathrooms with your hands. They didn’t provide you with mops or even gloves. It was hard work,” she said. “The first day I went, I was so tired I felt like a train had run over me.”
Gomez’s exhausting day would be the first of many. Like many other immigrants who show up at La Parada, her limited English didn’t allow her to speak up for herself. Employers took advantage by not providing her with adequate cleaning supplies and paying her low wages.
“(They would only give me) rags, a piece torn off a curtain, their children’s clothing, old shorts — anything they would find, that’s what they gave me to use,” she said. “Sometimes they didn’t give me a brush to clean the toilet. I would have to stick my hand in. It was very dirty and they didn’t provide gloves. Many women are not provided with the basic tools needed for cleaning.”
Gomez’s friend had advised her to charge $9 an hour, the highest wage employers at La Parada were willing to pay at the time. It was a little more than New York State’s $7.25 minimum wage at the time, but it wasn’t worth the abuse she said she often experienced.
“For me, it was really humiliating … they would walk by, sometimes stepping on your hands. It was very ugly,” Gomez said. “You get used to it over time, but it’s very hard. You can’t defend yourself because you don’t know much English.”
When Gomez was selected for a cleaning job, she never knew what to expect, nor was she given an overview of her duties. After cleaning a room, her employer would assign her the next task. Gomez recalls wanting a break to eat her lunch, but being told she wasn’t allowed to eat her food inside the house and instead sent outside in the cold. She was docked 30 minutes of pay for a 15-minute food break that day. And that was just one of the many indignities she faced.
“One lady made me cry. She was terrible. She didn’t treat me well and screamed no matter how well I did the job,” Gomez said.
The employer in question did not respect Gomez’s time. Even though Gomez had made clear what time she had to pick her children up from school, she remembers the woman yelling at her to keep cleaning. That was the last straw.
“That’s when I said, ‘No more,’ and I left, crying,” Gomez says.
Looking back, she wishes she had looked for an organization that could have helped her stand up to her employers and fight for more dignity and fair treatment. “But I was afraid,” Gomez remembers. “I was afraid they wouldn’t listen to me.”
Lack of legal protections
The jobs available at La Parada are, in a way, very flexible. Workers don’t need to know much English and shifts are short — typically five to six hours a day. Most importantly, no Social Security number is required. However, for these same reasons, the women of La Parada are easily exploited.
La Parada’s workers have largely been left out of the growing number of labor protections that New York’s housekeepers, nannies and home health aides have gained in recent years.
For example, in 2010, New York State passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which grants domestic workers basic protections, such as a right to overtime pay after 40 hours of work week, a rest day every seven days and three paid days of rest each year after one year of work for the same employer. But workers at La Parada generally do not qualify because they do not work that many hours for one family.
Then last March, the New York City Human Rights Law was amended to include domestic workers. That means they qualify for a new set of rights, including the right to be free from discrimination or retaliation for opposing discrimination, and reasonable accommodations if pregnant or disabled. As with other protections, it doesn’t apply to workers at La Parada because they work on a casual and informal basis.
“The job is informal because most of the time agreements are made verbally. A lot of issues happen because it’s informal,” said Maria Valdez, director of Liberty Cleaners and Williamsburg HUB, an initiative at the Worker’s Justice Project that advocates for house cleaners’ rights. “Wage theft is the most common, of course. Employers can tell you they’ll pay you $15 an hour and in the end, they can say they didn’t like the job and not pay.”
While laws intended for domestic workers often don’t apply to the undocumented workers at La Parada, they still have rights under the New York State Labor Law. Undocumented workers have the right to a minimum wage of $15 per hour in New York City. Additionally, the New York City Human Rights Law prohibits employers from harassing or mocking undocumented workers because of their nationality, religious beliefs or attire, accent or immigration status. Legislation A3412A became state law in October 2021, making it illegal to threaten employees with disclosing their immigration status to authorities.
While these rights protect the women of La Parada, they must be the ones to enforce them.
“It’s one thing to have the protections on the books. It’s an entirely different thing to try and enforce it,” said Haeyoung Yoon, senior policy director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “That’s where the real challenge is. In New York City and across the country, we have a culture of fear. Undocumented workers in particular are fearful of coming forward to enforce their rights because they know there is a risk of being retaliated against by an employer.”
That is why, Valdez said, knowing one’s rights is a worker’s most valuable asset. Because domestic work takes place behind closed doors, empowering workers by informing them of their rights is the most important thing organizations like Liberty Cleaners can do, she notes.
“We have seen that empowerment is more beneficial for our community because it will lead them to know themselves and value themselves as a person and as a worker. It will also lead them to value their work,” she said. “It will also lead them to give that information to their employer.”
Three steps back
Through help and education from organizations such as Liberty Cleaners at the Worker’s Justice Project, workers like Merced Aguilar have been able to advocate for a better work environment. Aguilar moved to New York City from California in 2013 to be closer to family and find better work opportunities, which led her to La Parada.
Even though Aguilar had previously worked as a housekeeper, the work she found at La Parada was different. Like Gomez, she spent two years cleaning on her knees without adequate tools and without knowing ahead of time what her duties would entail. Activists from Liberty Cleaners showed up one day and made her realize she should speak up.
“They gave us fliers in English, Spanish and Yiddish. They said we needed the tools to do our job like gloves and a mop,” she said.
Aguilar began attending meetings organized by Liberty Cleaners. She took English classes, as well as courses on how to use cleaning products, which gave her the confidence she needed to advocate for herself. However, just when Aguilar felt more empowered, the pandemic hit.
Most workers who go to La Parada, including Aguilar, are undocumented and did not qualify for unemployment benefits or stimulus checks.
“During the pandemic, there was not a lot of work (at La Parada). I still had to come out because I thought the pandemic would last a long time. I did not want the money I had been saving for a decade to be gone in an instant,” Aguilar said. “And so, with the fear of getting sick and getting my family sick, I went out every day to look for work.”
Many employers who hire domestic workers at La Parada are members of the Hasidic Jewish community, which was hit hard by the pandemic, due in part to COVID-19 denialism that stems from a deeply-rooted distrust of secular authorities. Aguilar found work with a few families during the early months of the pandemic, but some were apathetic toward COVID-19 and wouldn’t wear masks while Aguilar cleaned the apartment. Others refused to provide her a mask upon her request. Aguilar recalls an instance when she was given a stocking to put on her face instead; on another occasion, she was handed a mask that had already been used.
“I went with another (employer) whose husband was sick and they did not warn me,” she recalls. “Her husband would move from room to room like a ghost. He would put a blanket over his head and leave the room (when I came in to clean). They did not warn me that he was sick or that I could get sick and get my family sick.”
Aguilar didn’t know what to do or how to speak up for herself; but if she stopped working, she wouldn’t have had any other income to support her family.
“I thought, if my son gets sick, I must stop working to care for him. (The pandemic) was not easy and I don’t have good memories. It was chaos for me. I had a lot of fear and stress. Even my hair fell out, so remembering it makes me sad,” she said.
When the COVID-19 vaccine was released, Aguilar was optimistic, but many of her clients were reluctant to get vaccinated. In fact, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, continues to be one of the least vaccinated communities in New York City (only 60% of people in Williamsburg have received two doses of a vaccine, while New York City’s overall vaccination rate for two doses is 80%), likely due partly to misinformation and hesitancy among the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish populations.
“For (some of my employers), the vaccine does not exist. They do not want to get vaccinated. They would tell us not to get vaccinated because it is not good,” said Aguilar, adding that she got vaccinated to protect her family.
Even today, Aguilar says that some of her employers continue to disregard the gravity of the virus.
Aguilar said that if she’d only known about the Excluded Workers Fund — the state fund created for undocumented New Yorkers who were left out of federal relief programs including unemployment and pandemic benefits because of their immigration status — she would not have put herself at risk by going to work every day.
She can never forget what happened to one of her colleagues at La Parada who also felt she had no choice but to keep working during the height of the pandemic. “Because of her need she did not stop working, she continued working and died of COVID,” Aguilar said.
Workers have the right to report their employers to the Department of Labor (DOL) for wage theft or discrimination, but the process can take years. During the pandemic, Valdez said she received many calls about employers putting workers at risk, but it was a challenge to get DOL to investigate.
“It’s usually very difficult,” she said. “Those cases take a long time. For wage theft, they’ll only take cases in which the wage theft was $5,000 or higher, and for things to resolve, it takes three to five years. I can imagine general complaints and discrimination taking much longer.”
In New York City, some undocumented workers can file lawsuits and complaints regarding wage theft to the DOL. However, claims from independent contractors, which the women of La Parada are considered, are not accepted.
“The challenge with the DOL is that they always have more cases that they need to deal with than the human capacity that’s available to [process] them in a timely way,” Yoon said. “It’s unfortunately too common for workers to wait a long time to collect their unpaid wages.”
Due to the lack of protections and awareness about their rights, many workers are afraid to speak up. La Parada is a product of poverty and desperation. The need to find work to survive, combined with the lack of knowledge of their rights, often silences women.
Even though Gomez arrived in the U.S. in 2002, she did not know that New York City was considered a “sanctuary city” where policies prevent local officials from sharing information about undocumented individuals with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“I didn’t know I had rights. I was terrified of the police because I thought they could arrest me and send me to Mexico. I didn’t know that here you could exercise your rights,” Gomez said. “If someone mistreats you, you have the right to report them.”
Over the years, Gomez became more aware of her rights and began learning English. By the time she stopped looking for work at La Parada in 2018, she was making $15 an hour. She was later offered a job by someone from her church that paid her $25 an hour to care for an elderly patient.
“Out of necessity, sometimes you shut up and endure and endure,” she said. “But nowadays, thank God I don’t have to go to Brooklyn. I needed it for a while and I could make some money for my expenses, but if they asked me to go back there, I wouldn’t come back unless I had a lot of need.”
Aguilar, on the other hand, said that her time at Liberty Cleaners has allowed her to find clients that respect her work and treat her with dignity. They give her the right tools, pay her more than minimum wage and sometimes cover her lunch. That is why, despite the hardships she faced during the height of the pandemic, she decided to continue seeking work at La Parada.
“(My employers) have told me that it’s good that I equip myself because I do a better job,” she said.
Valdez believes that knowledge is a domestic worker’s greatest resource.
When Valdez meets immigrant domestic workers, she reminds them that they came to this country for better conditions. She urges them to educate themselves about their rights, either through Liberty Cleaners or other community centers.
“It’s eye-opening for them because most of the time with the immigrant community, it’s just working… from the house to work,” she said. “They don’t know of the other opportunities that will guide them.”
Currently, hubs like La Parada all over New York City are filling up with newly arrived asylum seekers looking for work. Desperation forces them to tolerate horrible working conditions, like Gomez and Aguilar once did. Without rights to protect them, the cycle of abuse will continue.
“We must value these workers and see them because when they do their cleaning, they give their heart out. Most of these cleaners give their 1,000%,” Valdez said. “We must start valuing their work; they have so much to give and they give a lot as workers. Unfortunately, this work is not something they want to do, but they have no other choice.”
This report was made possible with the support of Altavoz Lab with palabra. / NAHJ, created to support community journalists in investigations on accountability in the service of immigrant communities, Latinos, or other populations that are not sufficiently represented in the media.