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Voices of Resilience: Stories from Women Navigating Informal Labor

Josephine Biclar | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Josephine Biclar boarding a bus to go to work. | Samanta Helou Hernandez

For three years, Josephine Biclar woke up at 5 in the morning, got on the bus for an hour, and worked overnight shifts taking care of the elderly. Her duties included both physical and emotional labor. She cooked, cleaned and bathed her clients, but also dealt with rude behavior and even physical abuse. When her patients passed away, she had to be strong and move on. Because she was misclassified as an independent contractor, Josephine was not entitled to health insurance or retirement benefits, and the agency she worked for told her to log in eight hours instead of the 24 she was working. Josephine often made less than five dollars an hour. She spent her days taking care of others yet there was no one to take care of her.

Most workers in nail salons fall into what some call the "informal economy." Learn more about this in "City Rising: The Informal Economy" (Trailer)

Josephine’s story is all too common for women who are forced into informal jobs that take advantage of their precarious situation. Because women, people of color and immigrants have often been left out of traditional, regulated forms of employment, informal economies like street vending and domestic labor provided opportunities for employment. Of the 2 million domestic workers in the United States, 90% are women, and the majority of those women are immigrants. Live-in care-taking, nannying, housekeeping and other forms of domestic work are largely unregulated, which leaves a lot of room for abuse, like in Josephine’s case. Domestic workers are currently unable to unionize and are excluded from the Occupational Safety and Health Act, making it difficult to ensure safe working conditions for these women.

“The women come from other countries to work hard for hardly nothing. They face all kinds of exploitation from sexual assault to wage theft,” explains Marisol Turincio who works as a case manager at the Employee Rights Center in San Diego. “Employers say things like, ‘Oh no, in my company there is no breaks or lunch. In my company we don’t pay overtime.’ The employers take advantage, they know who to do it to: women, single mothers and undocumented folks.”

But these women are not just a statistic. They’re mothers, singers, hobbyists, fighters, and survivors. They’re the ones cleaning homes and offices, taking care of elderly family members, giving people a piece of home with their street food, listening to people’s problems and providing a sense of comfort despite their own adversities. Yet their contributions often go unrecognized and their labor is exploited and undervalued.

These are the stories of four of those women.

Josephine Biclar at her apartment. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Josephine Biclar at her apartment. | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Josephine Biclar, Panorama City, Los Angeles

Josephine grew up in the Philippines where she worked since high school. After a stint as a police officer and office worker, she left for the United States. A friend set her up with a caregiving job that paid well until her patients passed away. That’s when Health Alliance Nurses Corp., now Hand Homecare Provider, Inc., a caregiving agency that employs mostly Filipina immigrants, recruited Josephine.

She works long hours with each client, giving them sponge baths, hand feeding them if need be, and making sure they take their medicine at the right time, even if that means waking up at midnight. When Josephine is caregiving, the 67-year-old only sleeps about four hours a night.

After three years of working with the agency, Josephine was fed up with the wage theft that paid her for only eight hours of a 24-hour shift. That’s when she found the Pilipino Workers Center, a nonprofit that organizes low-wage Filipino workers. Thankfully, Josephine had meticulously saved every paycheck and timesheet. Together, they filed a class action lawsuit along with other caretakers and won back pay for a year's worth of work.

“Everywhere in the world, caregivers are important,” says Josephine. “Give the caregivers the right compensation. Then we will be happy because if not, we’re still here. We will fight.”

Josephine Biclar helping a woman get off the bus. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Josephine Biclar helping a woman get off the bus. | Samanta Helou Hernandez

After a long day of work, Josephine hops on the bus for her long commute back to Panorama City, where she shares an apartment with three Filipino immigrants. In the apartment, one can see traces of the life they left behind. A big box in her room full of goods from America is ready to be shipped to family back home. Her apartment complex is somewhat of a small community of other Filipino caretakers. They often stand in the courtyard sharing cigarettes and commiserating about their work.

Josephine Biclar at her apartment. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Josephine Biclar at her apartment. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Josephine Biclar in the courtyard of the apartment complex where she lives. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Josephine Biclar in the courtyard of the apartment complex where she lives. | Samanta Helou Hernandez

“The owner of the agency told me that I should be thankful for her because she gave me work so that I can feed myself here in the United States. I told her, ‘I did not come to you. I did not apply on your agency. But you were the one who needed my services. So you have to pay me right. If that is the case,’ I told her, ‘I’ll just see you in court.’”

“People are getting old and each family cannot just stay at home to take care of their elders. They have to go out. They have to work to support their family. What is really needed by them is caregivers. Everywhere in the world caregivers are important.”

“To live alone here is very hard. I have to struggle to make a living to support myself.”

“Give the caregivers the right compensation and we will be happy. Because if not, we’re still here. We will fight.”

Josephine Biclar | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Josephine Biclar | Samanta Helou Hernandez

“I am simple but tough. That is me. Simple but tough. I like that song ‘The Tide is High.’”

Josephine sings: “I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that. Oh no. The tide is high but I’m holdin’ on. I’m gonna be your number one. Number one. Number one.”

Josephine is happiest on her days off when she takes herself out to eat or to a karaoke bar, sometimes with friends, and other times alone. Her favorite song to sing is “The Tide is High” by Blondie.

Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Nelly Moraga, City Heights, San Diego

Nelly Moraga has worked informal jobs since she arrived in the United States 20 years ago. 

After her abusive husband passed away at an early age, she left Sinaloa, Mexico for San Diego in order to provide a better, safer life for her daughter.

She arrived undocumented and with no real connections. The first job she found was cleaning houses alongside another domestic worker who only gave her a $20 cut per day. This wasn’t enough to support her daughter and newly adopted son, so she filled the gap by recycling cans. “Fourth of July was the best. I would fill up the car trunk again and again. I would bring my kids too.”

After a year of cleaning houses for $20 a day, she decided to take up street vending. Nelly’s burritos with homemade flour tortillas were a hit with the day laborers at the Home Depot parking lot. She later started somewhat of an underground restaurant feeding construction workers breakfast, lunch, and dinner in her City Heights apartment. But then the rains hit. The construction workers were out of a job and could no longer afford to pay her.

Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Nelly Moraga cooking. | Samanta Helou Hernandez

That’s when she decided to go back to housekeeping. Her upbeat and cheery disposition, combined with her efforts to spotlessly clean each home, made her a favorite among her clients who lived in wealthy beach-side neighborhoods like La Jolla.

“I leave my problems at home and I leave the house with a smile on my face as if I don’t have any problems,” she explains. “Why am I going to spread my problems to other people? I rather show them a life that shines. That’s how I slowly started winning over my clients.” Nelly has such an excitement for life, it’s hard to imagine how someone can be so positive while enduring such intense hardship.

While most of her bosses are respectful, she’s dealt with verbally abusive homeowners who demand extra work without pay. She often cleans cars, walks and bathes dogs — all of which are above and beyond her pay grade. But she still does it for fear of losing her job. “As an undocumented person, if you try to get a job somewhere else they ask for your papers,” she explains.

Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Nelly suffers from polycystic kidney disease, a disease that causes her kidneys lose function over time. As an informal worker, Nelly doesn’t have health insurance and has to rely on community clinics. And because of her immigration status, she doesn’t qualify for a kidney transplant, which she’ll eventually need. This means Nelly has to be extra careful with her diet: no red meat, spicy foods, or alcohol. She can only drink alkaline water and organic foods. There are days when she leaves work with excruciating back pain. If she gets injured on the job, there are no protections. Nelly’s physically demanding job is not sustainable to her health, but she has no other choice with her daughter in college and an expensive diet that keeps her alive.

Today, Nelly makes about $100 to $120 a day, working 5 days a week, and is looking to add another day of work. Because domestic labor is largely unregulated, Nelly can be let go at any  moment, leaving her to scramble for more work. She still recycles to supplement her income.

Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez

“It’s really a lot of work. What they make you do is too much. Like this Monday’s shift, do you know how many times I cleaned their kitchen? Four.

“My back hurts so much because of my kidney problem. It’s as if someone was tearing your back apart with a knife.”

“What kills me the most is standing up for a long time in the kitchen cleaning dishes or folding clothes. The person I work for on Monday, gives me $100 for eight hours of work. It’s nothing for eight hours of work. I always leave that shift crying. I’ll sit in the car and won’t walk into my house until the pain goes away.”

“So it’s not fair that while we’re hurting ourselves to have their houses clean, they don’t value us. Our job needs to be respected. We do it with dignity and with pride.”

Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Nelly Moraga | Samanta Helou Hernandez

“When my kids are together at my house, that’s when I feel like the perfect woman. I say, ‘Wow, I have my kids and we are enjoying this beautiful moment.’”

“My biggest dream is to become a nurse in this country. As long as we have life in us, we must never stop dreaming, mija.”

“There’s one by Juan Gabriel that I really like.”

Starts singing: “Oh where did my love go? That love that once made me dream. I ask her friends where she is. Oh where, oh where did my love go?”

Outside of work, Nelly volunteers at her church and has an active social life. But her biggest joy is being there for her daughter and adopted son. She loves romantic Spanish music like Jose Jose and Juan Gabriel. Her favorite song: ¿Dónde andará?” by Juan Gabriel.

Nelly’s biggest dream is to be able to practice nursing again like she did in Mexico. She hopes to one day become a citizen so she can work in a hospital. Until then, she must continue cleaning houses.

Story continues below

Martha Orozco | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Martha Orozco | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Martha Orozco, City Heights, San Diego

Martha Orozco often loses feeling in her hands and her arms. Her wrists and shoulders are in constant pain, from years of chopping tomatoes, grating cheese and carrying ice at a popular taco fast food chain where she worked. She often has a shooting pain in her head and her ears are always ringing, the outcome from fainting and hitting her head three times while at work. But because she was hired as an independent contractor, the company refuses to pay for her medical bills, the ambulance she took from work to the hospital and worker’s compensation for the injuries she sustained from repetitive labor.

Martha was born in Mexico City. She left Mexico for the United States in her late 30s, following the death of her mother.

Martha Orozco | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Martha Orozco | Samanta Helou Hernandez

She started out cleaning houses where, often, the homeowners refused to let the domestic workers drink water or use the bathroom. “No matter what you couldn’t use the bathroom. That’s the worst thing you could do to them,” says Martha. “You had to wait and then run to the nearest shopping center to go to the bathroom.”

Eventually, she landed a job at a gas station convenience store and then as a prep-cook at the taco chain. At one point, she was working three jobs at once.

At the taco restaurant, managers took advantage of her status as an independent contractor, and would ask her to work overtime without paying her. Then, whenever they saw fit, they would take her hours away. In 14 years of working there, she didn’t receive a single vacation day.

Her male managers and co-workers often made sexual comments, and would try to touch their female coworkers inappropriately. Whenever they would pass behind Martha and try to touch her, she would throw things at them. “I would threaten to hit them with the heavy stick we used to press the beans. I’m not going to allow that, they’re not going to touch me,” Martha describes defiantly.

Martha Orozco | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Martha Orozco | Samanta Helou Hernandez

The restaurant was often understaffed, with little preparation done from the shift before Martha’s. This meant her and the other colleagues had to pick up the slack.

One day, she showed up for her shift and only one other employee had clocked in, so no preparation had been done. There was no way two people could do the job of 10. She felt stressed, but started hustling orders anyway. That’s when she suddenly woke up on the floor. Martha doesn’t remember what happened and neither did her colleague who was preparing orders at the time. She got up, sat for a bit, drank some water and went back to work. This happened two more times. The falls caused bleeding in her eye. She started having complications from the fall and the physically demanding nature of her job. Martha wasn’t able to follow up with a specialist because as an undocumented person the only insurance she’s entitled to is emergency Medi-Cal.

Martha Orozco shows the scar on her head from an injury | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Martha Orozco showing the scar on her head from an injury | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Her manager did not fill out a report after the falls and the company refused to pay workers compensation. Martha filed a lawsuit against the company with help from the Employee Rights Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of workers. She won the case but only for injuries sustained from repetitive labor, not from the three falls. The money she received was not enough to cover her medical bills. Martha hopes to file another lawsuit for the injuries from the accidents.

She can’t work much these days due to her injuries, but every now and then she cleans Vons grocery stores for extra cash, a job that’s often taxing on her body.

Martha currently volunteers at the Employee Rights Center, where she encourages fellow immigrants to fight for their rights and defend themselves. When she’s not volunteering, she loves attending Spanish rock concerts. Whenever her favorite bands and artists from Mexico, like Maldita Vecindad or Emmanuel, are in town, she’s there. She loves sports, dancing and going on walks, even if she gets dizzy and has to sit down for a while. “I think I’m someone who’s liked living life in my own way. I’ve always tried to live a good life, and enjoy every day, do the things I want to do,” she explains.

Martha Orozco | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Martha Orozco | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Women of the Informal Economy: Martha
Reyna Garcia at home with a family photo. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia at home with a family photo. | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Reyna Garcia, Escondido

Reyna Garcia was born in Oaxaca. Her father was part of the Bracero Program and lived in the United States. She arrived at 18 years of age and immediately started cleaning houses.

One day, Reyna brought her sister to work, who felt thirsty during the shift. Her sister decided to grab a soda from the fridge. The next day Reyna’s boss told her, “I noticed you grabbed a soda.” Reyna apologized and explained that they were very thirsty. She offered to repay her for the soda, to which the homeowner responded with, “You no longer have a job.”

After years as a domestic worker, and because of her citizenship, Reyna was able to create her own licensed housekeeping company. But after 20 years of cleaning houses with harsh cleaning fluids like bleach and degreasing agents, her health started to take a toll.

Reyna knew several fellow Oaxacans in Escondido who couldn’t leave the United States and missed the food of their home country, so she started making trips to Mexico to buy traditional food products like chapulines, tortillas, tlayudas, and bread. When she wasn’t cleaning houses, she was selling Oaxacan products in her community.

Her goal was to open up a restaurant of her own. “I told myself, ‘If I can sell the food products, then I can cook them too,” explains Reyna. “My mom taught me and gave me all her recipes.” That’s when she left housekeeping and rented a stand at the Escondido Swap Meet where sells Oaxacan dishes like tortas, tlayudas and mole to hungry shoppers on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Every Tuesday, she makes the trek to Tijuana to buy fresh products newly shipped from Oaxaca. She spends all day Thursday preparing the food for the weekend, and on Friday, she’s at the swap meet from 7 in the morning to 1 in the morning. Despite the long hours, getting help from her daughters and employees takes a load off her shoulders. Partly because of her citizenship status and determination, Renya was able to leave the informal economy — a success story that is unfortunately not the norm. 

“I feel so happy when I see people enjoying my food and they come back again and again,” explains Reyna, who also works as a volunteer encouraging her community to participate in the 2020 census. “We are valuable human beings. We contribute a lot to this country and we need to be counted.”

Reyna Garcia | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia on the grill preparing Oaxacan food. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia at her food stand. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia taking an order at her food stand. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia's food stand | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia's food stand. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Reyna Garcia | Samanta Helou Hernandez
 

 

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