Julia Moore, a Cambridge resident, likes her house to be "eat-off-the-floor" clean and spends a lot of time keeping it that way: sweeping, vacuuming, scrubbing and mopping. But as a full-time therapist and consultant, she said, she can only do so much. So, Moore employs a housekeeper named Sharon.
“She usually comes in once a week, and she’s ’s been with us for 17 years,” said Moore.
In early March, just short of what would have been 18 years, the threat of coronavirus brought those weekly visits to an abrupt halt. Sharon, the housekeeper, who also lives in Cambridge, said she is no longer working. All six of her regular clients have canceled appointments for the foreseeable future. Sharon — who asked WGBH News not to divulge her last name — said there is no such thing as working from home in her profession. If she is home, she's not working.
But Moore and one other long-time client are still paying her.
“And the other ones, I talk to them almost every other day, but they've never said anything at all about paying me,” she said.
Moore said she believes it is her responsibility to compensate someone who has worked in her home for nearly two decades.
“I have a guaranteed income, so to speak, because I'm on a retainer and I feel it's sort of the same with our housekeeper, that I have her essentially on a retainer," Moore said. "It's sort of a social contract, something that we should do. She doesn't have any kind of savings plan you would have if you worked in a company. And I want to make sure she's OK.”
On social media it wasn’t hard to find other people who decided to pay their housekeepers in the absence of work.
Karen Mapp, a Harvard University professor at the School of Education, said her decision reflects her upbringing.
“My housekeeper has been coming to clean here for 14 years, and I just decided I'm just going to continue to pay her until she can come back,” said Mapp. “My mother, especially, was all about always trying to help other people. You know, I hear her voice telling me, 'You have privilege. You still have a position. You still have a job. You're still getting paid. So you need to take care of people who take care of you.'"
She added, "My housekeeper and others, they've been taking care of me for years. So it's time for me to do what I can to take care of them.”
Colleen Graham of Nashua, N.H., said the irony of having her meticulous housekeeper come to scrub the counters would be the possibility of bringing a mysterious illness into her home. So, Graham pays her to stay away. She said she texted her a week ago and asked her not to come.
“I just don't think it's wise to come to the house," Graham said. "The next cleaning will be coming up again soon. So, my intention is to pass on having extra people coming in and out of the house, but I'll continue to pay her.”
Graham’s housekeeper, Camilla, who is from Brazil, also asked that we not use her last name. She started her cleaning service 10 years ago and is struggling to make an income during this crisis.
“I have about 42 houses that me and my crew cleans, and I would say six or seven are paying us,” said Camilla. “And it’s been amazing, because I can’t work from home. And I still have my bills coming in.”
A majority of housekeepers in the Northeast are women of color, foreign born and often undocumented, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Few qualify for state and federal funding provided by the Paycheck Protection Program or for government-backed small business loans. A 2017 survey by the Alliance determined that most spend more than half their income on rent or mortgage and almost none have paid sick days or paid time off.
And during this pandemic, said Heliosa Barboza, they “especially are not doing well.”
Barboza produces a podcast in Portuguese called Faxima focused exclusively on the lives of Brazilian housekeepers in New England, estimated to number over 10,000. Barboza said she has been in touch with large numbers of them.
“The first week they were home, some people who employed the services, they agreed to pay. The second week not much. And now the third week that they are home, most of [the customers] they are not paying.”
And why should they? That is a question some might ask. Why pay housekeepers, or anyone else for that matter, for work they are not doing? Michael Sandel, Harvard University professor of political philosophy, whose books on “moral reasoning” are among the top selling in the world, had an answer.
“I think that argument applies if we're talking about a purely transactional relationship with a large company,” he told WGBH News.
Sandel pointed out that if your health club closed or your flight was canceled because of the pandemic, you would not expect to pay for services you did not receive. But with a house cleaner, it's very different, he said.
“It's not a purely transactional relationship. It's a person, typically, who’s economically very vulnerable. And so, I see that is morally very different. And I think there is an obligation to continue paying the house cleaner, even though due to the pandemic, that person is not providing the service.”
But many people who own spas, gyms and restaurants may have had regularly scheduled housekeepers, but now their incomes have gone up in smoke. For example, 62 percent of restaurant owners report they have closed their businesses due to the pandemic.
Camilla said she knows some of her clients lost their jobs and are in no position to pay furloughed domestic workers. She said, “that’s totally understandable, you know.”
“I’m so blessed to have my husband still working,” she said. “He works for Market Basket. But the girls who works for me, they are not as lucky as me. And what I'm trying to do is: I still have three houses that want us to keep cleaning. And what I'm trying to do is send them to clean it. And that's the way I think I'm helping them.”
Sharon, the housekeeper in Cambridge, is now contemplating quitting the business altogether. She has diabetes and said that makes her susceptible to coronavirus. Housekeeping is now a more dangerous profession.
“I think just at this point I’m going to settle down and just keep a couple of people and not worry about it, 'cause nothing is going our way,” Sharon said.
But she said she is grateful for Moore and other long-time employers, clients and friends who have continued to support housekeepers as the pandemic rages on.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how often Sharon usually cleans Julia Moore's home. She does so once per week.