For twenty years, two very different communities have been meeting on the corner of Marcy and Division avenues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Ultra-Orthodox Jews go there to find cleaning ladies; Latina immigrants to find work.
Gloria Puma, 35, is one of the latter, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador. One morning almost exactly four years ago, her cousin, a cleaner in ultra-Orthodox homes, brought her to “la esquina” — the corner.
After three hours, a woman approached Puma and offered her $11 an hour for seven hours of cleaning to help her family prepare for Pesach, or Passover, the Jewish festival that commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. The first day, she scrubbed the kitchen floor by hand, from her knees. The next, the woman asked her to clean her apartment’s windows from the outside. Puma had to crouch in the window grate installed to keep children from falling out.
“I was really scared, because it wasn’t a low house, it was on the seventh floor,” Puma said.
Looking back, Puma said she feels the job she did that day was poorly paid, humiliating and even dangerous. Such conditions are the reasons why Latino domestic workers in Orthodox communities in New Jersey and New York are organizing into groups that are a bit like unions. They’re educating one another and their employers about their rights, and seeking respect and the pay they deserve. The weeks leading up to the holiday shine a light on the importance of these groups, which have extracted concessions from the communities that employ them.
Cleaning for Passover, which starts Friday night, is commanded by Jewish law, and it can be a big, hard job. The ancient Israelites were in such a rush to leave Egypt that they couldn’t wait for their bread to rise. Observant Jews refrain from leaven for eight days and eat cracker-like matzo instead. Some, including the ultra-Orthodox, also banish it from their lives completely by doing a spring cleaning on steroids.
Houses and apartments must be cleaned room by room, from corner to corner. Domestic workers are frequently asked to scrub tile grout, the gaps between floor boards and corners with a toothbrush, on their knees. Mattresses are flipped and bed frames are scrubbed down; closets and drawers are emptied for the same treatment. Bathrooms may get bleached from the floor tiles all the way up the walls. Refrigerators are emptied out; ovens are cleaned to the heating element.
This tends to be women’s work. To do it right, and to save their sanity, many of those women hire domestic help like Puma.
“Some people are clearly very balabustish, and very proud of their homes and the ways that they keep them,“ said Ayala Fader, a professor of anthropology at Fordham University who studies ultra-Orthodox Jews, using the Yiddish term for a homemaker.
In some ultra-Orthodox households, Passover cleaning begins after the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, which fell in January this year. Many start two months in advance, after the holiday of Purim.
“If you ask rabbis, or marriage counselors, they would tell any woman, treat yourself, and even if you cannot afford it, serve tuna fish two nights a week, and hire help for two hours,“ said “Adina,” a Lakewood resident who helps homeowners find Latina domestic workers in the area, and helps the two parties settle the particulars of job description, hours, and pay. Adina for a pseudonym to protect her privacy.
LABELS IN HEBREW
On an average day, 30 to 40 women find work at the corner in Williamsburg; the number jumps to as many as 60 in the weeks leading up to Passover, according to the cleaners and local organizers. About half the women there have only just arrived from Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, and other Central American countries, and many of them have never met a Jew.
“They go for the first time, not knowing what kind of work they will be hired for, what kind of conditions they’ll be working in, not understanding the Jewish community,” said Ligia Guallpa the executive director of the Workers Justice Project, an organizing group for day laborers in Brooklyn.
People in the ultra-Orthodox community — which is concentrated in Brooklyn, Lakewood, and Rockland and Orange counties in suburban New York — say that hiring a domestic worker is very common. Even families who aren’t wealthy will do so in the weeks leading up to Passover.
There are no numbers on how many ultra-Orthodox households employ domestic workers, but the New York State Department of Labor [estimates] (https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/2016/11/CTWP-NYC.pdf) that there are 240,000 statewide.
In Williamsburg, the corner connects workers and people who need cleaning; in car-dependent suburbs, brokers like Adina bring them together. She works in Lakewood, home to possibly the fastest growing ultra-Orthodox community in the New York City area. There, the cleaning ladies take the bus or taxis, or their agencies drive them in.
Domestic workers in Williamsburg and Lakewood told the Forward that extra compensation for Passover preparation is rare, but Adina said many workers earn overtime and bonuses.
Last year, a New Jersey nonprofit called New Labor that advocates for vulnerable workers surveyed 90 home cleaners, most of whom work in Lakewood, and found that two-thirds of them didn’t feel like they were paid fairly.
To do the cleaning, the women are asked to use harsh, undiluted cleaning fluids like ammonia, oven cleaner and bleach, several women told the Forward. They said the fumes can make them feel faint when cleaning on their knees in unventilated spaces, like bathrooms, or inside closets and large kitchen appliances. In both Lakewood and Williamsburg, workers said they sometimes didn’t know what they were using to clean, because the bottles either didn’t have labels, or had labels in Hebrew.
To be sure, mistreatment of domestic workers — including being forced to work from their knees and using dangerous chemicals — happens in all kinds of settings, according to Jamie San Andres, a project coordinator at Make The Road NYC, an advocacy group for Latino residents of New York City.
Nearly a quarter of all domestic workers nationwide were paid below their state’s minimum wage, as of 2012, with 70% overall making less than $13 an hour And while it is illegal to hire undocumented workers, and to pay domestic workers without reporting them as employees, the practice is widespread in every city and state.
Domestic workers with ultra-Orthodox employers usually make $12 to $13 an hour, according to workers who spoke to the Forward. That’s above New Jersey’s minimum wage of $8.85. and a little bit below New York’s of $13.50. — but definitely lower than the $15 an hour that has become the rallying cry for hourly workers across the country.
Also, Latinos who work for ultra-Orthodox Jews sometimes feel disrespected for reasons that stem from Jewish observance, such as not being allowed to eat their own food inside the homes, because it’s not considered kosher by their employers, or missing workdays without pay on Jewish holidays, according to Virgilio Aran, an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“There has been more of a cultural clash,” said Aran.
THE FLOOR, NOT THE CEILING
Still, even in the time Puma has worked in the community, wages for Latina cleaning ladies have gone up, and life on the job has improved.
In 2013, New Labor made a push in Lakewood to make $10 per hour the floor, not the ceiling, for wages, said Kimmel. Now, he says, they’re trying to raise that to $15.
New Labor also helped domestic workers in Lakewood develop a ten-part bill of rights, which included “No work from knees” and “Respect on the job.” Kimmel said that since then, New Labor’s surveys show that now only a minority of women clean on their knees. Workers and organizers have observed the same trend in Brooklyn, with fewer women asked to clean that way in Williamsburg.
New Labor’s offices are above a laundromat on Clifton Avenue, the main business drag in downtown Lakewood. Picket signs and group pictures adorn the walls alongside posters outlining labor laws and workers’ rights.
New Labor often has seminars on the do’s and don’t’s of major Jewish holidays. One of their go-to packets is a printout with descriptions of the Jewish calendar from AishLatino.com. Casa Freehold, a social services provider to Latinos in the nearby town of Freehold, has similar classes, according to its director, Rita Dentino.
The domestic workers at New Labor say they can more credibly ask for wages at or above $15 an hour if they can demonstrate knowledge of Jewish observance.
“We want to respect them for their traditions,” said Reina Axalco, 34. “Just like we want them to respect us — our work, our health.”
A VERY HARD JOB
After several years of domestic work, Puma discovered the Workers Justice Project, the organizing group for Brooklyn day laborers.
She began to take evening English classes and learn about New York City labor laws. The organization, whose offices are located under the thundering tracks of the J/M/Z elevated Subway line in South Williamsburg, is decorated with pictures from marches and actions, hand-painted banners and protest signs, and a bulletin board with notices for events, jobs and classes.
Now, Puma says, she won’t work for less than $14 an hour, and in one home, she earns $20 an hour. She insists on working seven-hour shifts, because she needs to pick up her young daughter from daycare at 4 p.m. Thanks to the Workers Justice Project, she said, domestic workers’ labor is increasingly respected by employers.
She and other women who work in ultra-Orthodox homes have formed a committee — a small union — to insist on higher wages: at least $15 per hour. On a recent Monday, Puma and others met at the project’s offices to write the committee’s rules: No fighting amongst one another for work; no theft from job sites. Their table was strewn with handouts and dotted with toasted bagels on plastic plates.
Two days a week, organizers from the Workers Justice Project bring an sign to the Marcy and Division esquina that spells out its workers’ requirements in Yiddish, English, Spanish and Polish.
“Thank you for trusting us and letting us work in your home,” the sign reads. “We are experienced house cleaners who are extremely thorough and, most importantly, take great pride in our work.” It stipulates that the women must receive tools like a toilet brush and a mop, and be given a break after four hours of work.
“The domestic workers understand that there is a demand for labor,” said Guallpa, of the Workers Justice Project. “The women understand that this is a community where a lot of women who live in that community need support in their households.”
Guallpa says that while Jews and Latinos are different in many ways, they have a lot in common. Both have come to the United States to find better lives for their communities, and are widely misunderstood minorities.
“These are both communities who have a history where they have both been persecuted,” she said.
On a recent Friday morning, a little before 9 a.m., about two dozen women waited for employers to come by the corner. The roar from the expressway compelled the women to huddle closely if they wanted to speak to one another.
Friday is a slow day there: Families are home to prepare for the Sabbath by the mid-afternoon, which means a short workday for the cleaners.
A Hasidic man in his early twenties somewhat nervously approached a group of Latina women talking to one another.
“Anyone, English?” he asked, in broken English of his own.
Ruth, a veteran cleaner from Ecuador who relies on the corner to find day-long work twice a week, stepped forward.
“Yes,” Ruth, who asked that only her first name be used, responded snappily in English. “How many hours?”
Ruth eventually rejected the man’s offer: He refused to pay more than $12 an hour for six hours of work. After he walked away, she said that many women now insist on being paid at least $15 hourly for any job four hours or less.
“We talked, all of us women, and we can’t do that price,” Ruth said in Spanish. “Because it’s nothing.”
She glanced at the young Hasidic man as he crossed the street.
“And with Jews,” she said, suddenly switching to English, “It’s very hard job.”
Correction, April 22 — A previous version of this article misstated Virgilio Aran’s professional affiliation. He is the former executive director of the Laundry Workers Center, and is currently an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
This story "Pesach Sees Immigrants Help Clean Ultra-Orthodox Homes" was written by Ari Feldman.