Conflict & Justice

Undocumented immigrant caregiver tells story from inside invisible workforce

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Live-in caregiver Joesy Gerrish, from Fiji, with her employer Florence Tratar, who had an accident that left her in a wheelchair. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

Nannies, housecleaners, caregivers — they're sometimes called the world’s most invisible workforce.

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In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated more than 2 million people do this type of work. Most are women and many are immigrants. And pressure is growing to address their working conditions.

A few years ago, Florence Tratar fell down. In her 80s, it was enough of a spill to change her life drastically and leave her bound to a wheelchair. And with no family nearby, she needed someone to move in and care for her immediately.

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But nobody she hired clicked, until she found Joesy Gerrish, a caregiver from Fiji.

“I liked her right away,” Tratar said.

So once Gerrish’s references checked out, she was hired and moved in to help Tratar full time. It’s easy to see why Tratar picked Gerrish. In her early 40s, she is energetic, has a quick laugh, and says she treats her employers like family.

Now, Gerrish gets up early every morning, makes Tratar’s meals, drives her to appointments.

“I do everything!” Gerrish said.

“Everything!” Tratar agreed. “I mean, whatever I have to do, Joesy does.”

Tratar and Gerrish had ventured out to Sebastopol, Calif., north of San Francisco to see a short documentary about Gerrish. The film, by San Francisco-based director Theo Rigby, shows how immigrant caregivers increasingly fill a demand in the United States to attend to the disabled and elderly.

The documentary shows Gerrish cooking and shopping for a previous employer, an ailing Japanese woman. She feeds her, turns her over so she won’t get bed sores. It’s non-stop work.

After the film, Tratar realized how little she knew about Gerrish’s life: How she misses Fiji — and how she’s in the U.S. without legal authorization.

“This is a shock to me because I just didn’t know,” Tratar said.

She’s against hiring people without papers, she says. But she also can’t say why she never asked Gerrish for documentation. Maybe because she didn’t want to know, she says, because Gerrish was a good fit.

Meanwhile, Gerrish says she doesn’t worry about stepping out of the shadows so publicly. She tells Tratar how she’s hoping immigration reform might grant her legal status.

“It’s getting there,” Gerrish told Tratar. “It’s a long journey, but we’ll get there.”

Gerrish also tells Tratar how, in her off time, she is working to improve labor conditions for other caregivers, nannies and housekeepers. In California, it’s estimated that some 200,000 people do this type of work, many without papers.

She talks about women from Mexico she knows, along with other immigrants from elsewhere, who live in the U.S. illegally and worry about getting deported on their way to work. Also, Gerrish says, she hears about women worried about getting paid, since they are off the books. If there is a dispute with an employer, wages can be held back and undocumented workers may be unaware they still have the right to claim those wages.

“Oh, there’s a lot of that, getting paid under the table. A lot!” Tratar said.

Gerrish agreed.

“But that’s the only kind of work that we can do. We would like to do other stuff. But we’re stuck with that,” she said.

Gerrish says she has felt mistreated by other employers.

“Oh, you’re like a slave,” she said. “Do this. Do that. Do that. I say, ‘Wait a minute, I only have two hands.’ But they want you right there, right there, right there. Otherwise, I’ll kick you out. But you have to do it. Otherwise what else can you do? You need to survive.”

Gerrish is working with labor advocate Maureen Purtill, who organizes immigrant women at the Graton Day Labor Center nearby, in Sonoma. Purtill remembers Gerrish’s reaction when she told her that, among other demands, like overtime and vacation, they’d push for workers to get uninterrupted sleep.

“She burst into laughter, in this uncomfortable laughter, like, ‘Oh, I would love that. That would be amazing. I’ve never had the right to sleep five hours in a row, or eight hours in a row,” Purtill said. “Caregiving requires sometimes, you know, care every two hours if you’re caring for elderly people.”

It’s the case with Gerrish, who wakes up with Tratar at 4 or 5 a.m. every day.

“Oh my goodness gracious, you need domestic help,” Tratar said. “I don’t know what I would do without Joesy. I couldn’t survive.”

Tratar hopes Gerrish will legalize her status in the U.S. soon. She understands now that deportation is a constant worry for her caretaker.

“Every day you live in fear, just looking behind your shoulder every day,” Gerrish said.

The question now is whether new legislation would let both women rest a little easier.

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