Guadalupe Montesinos has confronted a pandemic year full of impossible choices.
Once schools shifted to remote learning, she had to leave her two kids, then 12 and 15, unsupervised in her apartment so she could go to her job caring for an elderly man in West Roxbury. When the daughter wouldn’t wake up for her remote classes, Montesinos brought her — toting her laptop — along on the job.
After her son stopped going to school altogether, Montesinos asked the juvenile court system to step in.
“It’s been way too stressful,” Montesinos said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Sometimes I thought I was going to give up.”
For bus drivers, supermarket cashiers, personal care aides and other essential workers, the pandemic has unleashed a torrent of setbacks that have knocked families off their feet. While millions of low-wage workers already living in poverty lost their jobs or had their hours cut as the virus spread, those who remain employed faced once-unimaginable hurdles keeping their children in school while keeping food on the table and trying to stay healthy. Half of households in the country earning below $35,000 a year reported falling behind on rent, and a quarter reported not having enough food, according to census data.
That vexing situation has been inflicted on domestic workers, a large but often invisible workforce of mostly Black and Hispanic women who left their own families in the pandemic to care for others.
“The stakes are definitely higher for low income women," said Alicia Sasser Modestino, a professor of public policy, urban affairs and economics at Northeastern University.
Essential workers like Montesinos have helped keep vital services rolling — she often delivers medicines to her clients — despite the risk of infection and the strain of closed schools. It’s a problem that’s led a disproportionate number of women to drop out of the workforce.
“On the one hand, they've been hit by the recession brought on by COVID more severely," said Sasser Modestino. "On the other hand, if they were fortunate enough to keep their job then they had to solve the childcare problem. So they're really just stuck between a rock and a hard place."
Montesinos thought she would be able to stay home from work when Boston Public Schools announced last March their closure and switch to remote learning. But she said she soon received a notice from her employer saying she needed to continue caring for an elderly man in West Roxbury, in person.
She also needed to continue volunteering three days a week to qualify for state SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, to supplement her $14-an-hour part-time pay. When the federal government temporarily suspended the work rules in the pandemic, Montesinos did not stop. She assembled and doled out lunches for school programs, saying it made her feel less stressed.
"One of the most valuable things that I believe in as a Christian is solidarity and helping others," she said.
But even services at the Braintree church she attends were on Zoom. Without a car, she feared taking the bus and the subway to work.
“I would pray to God to protect me because I wasn't doing it just to be out on the streets, but out of necessity,” she said. “I was trying to face what I feared.”
The 40-year-old, born in El Salvador, spoke with a reporter in the courtyard of the Archdale Village, a public housing compound tucked into a Roslindale neighborhood of triple-deckers. Sitting at a frozen metal picnic table, she wrung her calloused hands.
The subject still causes her strain, because she's around people so much and aware that she could bring the illness into her elderly client's home with potentially disastrous consequences. Or into her own home. Her first defense is a grocery bag with hand sanitizer and spare masks that she carries everywhere.
Shortly after schools closed to in-person learning, her home life unraveled. Montesinos said her son never left his room, sleeping day and night without eating. He had nightmares, too. He had school attendance problems before the pandemic, but everything had worsened, she said.
Friends and other people in her support network couldn't help out because they had their own pandemic-related problems, she said. So she filed a "Child Requiring Assistance" application in the juvenile court system. That request resulted in state helping to place her son — who GBH News is not naming because his involvement in juvenile system — in a group home last May.
It was not an easy decision, Montesinos said. She can’t visit him during the pandemic, and he’s been exposed to other infected teens, fortunately without getting infected himself.
But her daughter, Keyla, has also struggled with worsening school attendance. She doesn’t fall asleep before 2 am, even if her electronics and cell are shut off earlier in the night.
Montesinos brought her daughter to her volunteer and work gigs hoping ensure that she logged into her classes. Often the Internet connection was unavailable or not strong enough to support her daughter’s Zoom lessons.
“Sometimes I would have to use her (mother's) hotspot,” Keyla said. “That would work a little better, but there would be times it would, like, it would still lag.”
Montesinos said she has reluctantly let her daughter stay home, checking on her by cell throughout the day.
“She's very mature. If something did happen, she would know who to call or where to go or what to do,” Montesinos said. “We have two dogs that are like her guardian so no one can get close to her.”
The dogs are Yorkie mixes named Tinkerbell and Sampson.
Magalis Tronsco Lama, founder of the Dominican Development Center in Boston, said there are many women like Montesinos. The center, part of the Massachusetts Coalition of Domestic Workers and normally involved in political advocacy, has been working for the last 10 months to get food to hundreds of workers without enough to eat.
“It’s a lot of women,” she said. “All of them are mothers, all of them are looking for a job and many of them have [had] COVID-19.”
Keyla said she doesn’t like being cooped up in the small apartment all the time, but it’s safe. She said she tries not think about the pandemic, but isn’t always successful.
“There’s sometimes I get scared because she’s out,” she said of her mother, “and she might get COVID."
Keyla finds herself on her phone a lot watching DIY videos in her room or listening to rapper Bad Bunny. “I scroll on Tik Tok a lot," she said. "It’s pretty addicting."
She is scheduled to return to in-person learning in mid-March, entering a seventh grade classroom for the first time this year. She said the best part will be seeing her teachers again.
It will be a relief for Montesinos. Even though her own blood pressure has climbed to unhealthy levels, it will be a sign that she did it. She survived the pandemic.