On a humid August afternoon earlier this year, a middle aged woman paced Division Street and Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood in front of a line of immigrant women who had congregated for work. The woman, a potential employer, donned a neatly styled bobbed wig, a black flowy skirt that reached past her knees and a long-sleeved blouse, typical attire for Hasidic Jewish women who live in the neighborhood. She appeared to be ready to leave without making a hire when a young woman, a Latin American immigrant like the others in line, 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 and did not seem to understand the command. “I said take off the mask,” the older woman repeated, motioning with her hand. The young woman quickly pulled down her mask, and looked at her potential employer with hopeful eyes. But the older woman looked her up and down and turned away. The young domestic worker understood — she didn’t get the job.
The intersection is known as La Parada, or “The Stop.” The day laborer hub is frequented primarily by undocumented immigrant women from Latin America, as well as a few Eastern Europeans. They come in the hopes of finding a job as a housekeeper, but these informal, unregulated jobs often leave them vulnerable to abusive working conditions.
La Parada’s workers are vulnerable to exploitation
La Parada is the gateway to a first job in a new country. For others, it’s a last resort; when your immigration status prevents you from receiving unemployment benefits, La Parada is where you go. Margarita Gomez first came to La Parada in 2011 after her husband, who is undocumented, lost his job, and a friend told her it would be easy to find work there. All she had to do was show up.
“I went and was picked up. No one explained to me what I had to do. To my surprise, you had to clean on your knees at that time. 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,” Gomez says. “The first day I went, I was so tired, I felt like a train had run over me.”
Gomez’s exhausting first day — a common experience for the women working at La Parada — would be the first of many. Her limited English didn’t allow her to speak up for herself and her employers took advantage by not providing her with adequate cleaning equipment and paying low wages.
“[They would only give me] rags, their children’s clothing, old shorts, schmattas as they would call them — anything they would find, that’s what they gave me to use,” she says. “There were times they didn’t give me a brush to clean the toilet. I would have to stick my hand in and they didn’t give me gloves. It was very dirty. Many women are not provided with the basic tools needed for cleaning.”
Gomez’s friend had advised her to charge employers $9 an hour, the highest wage employers were willing to pay at the time, it was a little more than $7.25 the minimum wage of New York State at the time, but it wasn’t worth the abuse she says she often experienced from her employers.
“They would say we had to clean on our knees because of their beliefs, but it was not true. For me, it was really humiliating … they would be walking by, sometimes stepping on your hands. It was very ugly,” Gomez says. “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 expected duties. After cleaning a room in the house, her employer would give her the next task. For a long time, she didn’t have a lunch break. Gomez recalls wanting to take a break to eat her lunch, but she was sent outside in the cold and was told she wasn’t allowed to eat her food inside. She was docked 30 minutes of pay for a 15-minute food break that day.
“One lady made me cry. She was a terrible lady. She didn’t treat me well and screamed no matter how well I did the job. One time she forced me to clean the bathroom and the stairs over again even though I had left it super clean,” Gomez says. “I had explained to her what time I had to leave [to pick up my kids from school], but she yelled at me to keep cleaning. That’s when I said, ‘No more,’ and I left crying. At that time, I could have complained or gone to an organization that could help, but I was afraid. I was afraid they wouldn’t listen to me.”
Undocumented housekeepers lack sufficient protections
La Parada is, in a way, a very flexible workplace; workers don’t need to know much English, and if chosen for a cleaning job, 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 by those who employ them.
Housekeepers like Gomez are considered domestic workers, the term used for people who work in another person’s home, such as nannies and home health aides. For a long time domestic workers — 92% women and 52% of them women of color — lacked labor protections. It was only in 2010 that New York State granted its domestic workers the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
These protections are applied to workers regardless of their immigration status, however, the women at La Parada don’t qualify. The bill grants domestic workers basic protections such as a right to overtime pay after 40 hours of work, a rest day of 24 hours every seven days and three paid days of rest each year after one year of work for the same employer, among other protections. To qualify, women must work 40 hours a week for the same employer, which is not the case with most women who congregate at La Parada and often work for different employers each time.
Another protection for domestic workers passed in March 2022 when the New York City Human Rights Law was amended to include them. With this new change, domestic workers were given a new set of rights: the right to be free from discrimination, retaliation for opposing discrimination and to reasonable accommodations if pregnant or disabled, among others. 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,” says Maria Valdez, director of Liberty Cleaners and Williamsburg HUB at the Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), the house cleaners workers’ rights organization within WJP. “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 harrassing or making fun of undocumented workers because of their nationality, religious beliefs or attire, accent or immigration status. Legislation A3412A was signed into law in October 2021, making it illegal for someone to threaten employees with disclosing their immigration status to authorities.
While these rights protect the women of La Parada, they work alone and therefore 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,” says 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 says, that knowing one’s rights is a worker’s most valuable asset. Due to domestic work taking place behind closed doors, empowering workers is the most important thing organizations like Liberty Cleaners can do.
“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 says. “It will also lead them to give that information to their employer.”
The pandemic took domestic workers three steps back
Through help and education from organizations such as Liberty Cleaners at the Workers Justice Project, many 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 was also taken to homes not knowing what her cleaning duties would consist of, nor was she provided with adequate tools. She spent two years cleaning on her knees.
“One day the Workers Justice Project came with a van and they gave us fliers in English, Spanish and Yiddish. They said we needed the right tools to do our job. [The fliers] mentioned we should ask our employers for a mop and gloves,” she says.
Aguilar began attending meetings with the Workers Justice Project. She took English classes, as well as courses on how to use cleaning products, which equipped her with the confidence she needed to advocate for herself. However, just when the job was becoming more dignified for Aguilar, 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 says. “And so, with the fear of getting sick and my family sick, I went out every day to look for work.”
Aguilar was hired by a few families during the early months of the pandemic, but some of the Hasidic Jewish families she worked for were apathetic toward Covid-19. Some wouldn’t wear masks while Aguilar cleaned the apartment and others refused to give her mask when she requested one. Aguilar recalls an instance where she asked her employer for a mask and was given a stocking to put on her face instead; another time she was given a mask that was already used.
“I needed to keep working, I went with another [employer] whose husband was sick and they did not warn me about it,” 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 — that didn’t matter to them.”
Aguilar didn’t know what to do or how to speak up for herself; if she stopped working, she wouldn’t have 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 nice 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 says.
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 have received two doses of the vaccine, in contrast New York Cityis overall vaccination rate for two doses is 80%) likely due 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,” she says. “But for us, it was important to get vaccinated to protect our families.”
Even today, Aguilar says that her employers continue to disregard the gravity of the virus.
“They’ll say it’s the flu. Just last Monday, I went to work and the lady told me her husband only has the flu. They don’t believe in Covid-19 and they don’t believe in vaccines. If they don’t believe, they want us to not believe either,” she says. “But when we see they’re sick, we must protect ourselves, wash our hands and continue putting on our masks. For them, it’s a simple flu, but not for us.”
Aguilar says that if she’d only known about the Excluded Workers Fund — the fund created for New Yorkers who lost income during the pandemic and were left out of federal relief programs including unemployment and pandemic benefits — she would not have put herself at risk to go to work every day.
“If they had told me there was going to be help for everyone, many people would not have come out to work. And what happened? A colleague from [La Parada], she didn’t stop working. Because of her need she did not stop working, she continued working and died of Covid,” Aguilar says.
Employers are difficult to hold accountable
Workers have the right to report their employers to the Department of Labor (DOL) for wage theft or discrimination, but often, the process takes years. During the pandemic, Valdez says she received many calls about employers putting workers at risk, but it was complicated to get DOL to investigate.
“It’s usually very difficult,” she says. “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 says. “It’s unfortunately too common for workers to wait a long time to collect their unpaid wages.”
Due to the lack of protections and education 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 to 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 an undocumented individual 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 says. “If someone mistreats you, you have the right to report them, even if they are the women of Brooklyn.”
Over the years, Gomez became more aware of her rights and began learning English. By the time she stopped working 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 — she no longer needed to work at La Parada.
“Out of necessity, sometimes you shut up and tolerate and tolerate,” she says. “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, says that her time at Liberty Cleaners has allowed her to find clients that respect her work and treat her the way she deserves. They give her the right tools, pay her more than minimum wage and sometimes pay for her lunch. Which is why despite the hardships she faced during the peak of the pandemic, she decided to stay and work at La Parada.
“[My employers] have told me that it’s good that I equip myself because I do a better job,” she says.
Valdez believes that knowledge is a domestic worker’s greatest treasure.
“When I am informing the women, these are the words I use, ‘you came to this country for better conditions. You must start by [educating yourself]. It doesn’t have to be [at Liberty Cleaners], but you can approach a community center that can inform you on the other possibilities you have,’” she says. “It’s eye-opening for them because most of the time with the immigrant community, it’s just working…from the house to work. They don’t know of the other opportunities that will guide them.”
Currently, there are “paradas” all over New York City filling up with newly arrived asylum seekers looking for work. Their desperation to find employment 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 says. “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.