Ursula Simone de Assis might be the coolest 50-year-old I’ve ever met. In a t-shirt from the Perpétuas Motoclub, an all-female motorcycle club in Brazil, coupled with a flirty jean skirt, she recounted her experience spanning 18 years in the business of housecleaning, and punctuated her stories with anecdotes about getting caught dancing while scrubbing the bathroom or gossiping with her mother on FaceTime.
She loves the work, she says. She also loves her dog, vintage weapons, talking to new people, and Donald Trump. “I’m not, like, political, at all,” she says, “I know he’s crazy, but who’s not?”
Though she gets lonely, with two children who are now grown and out of the house, Ursula makes no apologies and has no regrets. “I try to live day by day. I don’t think much about the future.” At an age when many folks would be wringing their hands about retirement and social security, Ursula focuses on living her life to the fullest today without waiting for tomorrow. “If I die tomorrow, I die happy.” Everything that happens between now and then, she says, is a gift.
But she hasn’t always been this carefree. As a single mother with two young boys, there was so much more she had to think about. She chose housecleaning as a profession so that she could dedicate as much time as possible to raising and providing for her children, although it wasn’t the first job she had after immigrating to the US from Brazil thirty years ago. Factories and restaurants, she discovered, required working too many hours. Being a receptionist at a dental office was great, but she lost that job when insurance companies had a hard time understanding her English. Working at the Newark airport was easy, but the pay was too little.
Domestic work allowed Ursula the freedom to do what is most important: Making sure she had everything she needed to live and for her kids to grow. Flexible working hours meant she could miss a day of work to take a sick child to the doctor or attend a parent-teacher meeting. It meant a full night’s sleep for her family without having to wake up at dawn to be out of the house in time to punch a clock. There was always an extra day’s work to save up for braces and glasses, something she finds more difficult to do for herself now. “I’m getting old,” she says, though her spirit is much younger, “I have to put the money aside in savings for my health. I don’t have no insurance.”
The relative freedom provided by housecleaning had other costs as well. Dealing with back pain, heavy vacuums, going up and down stairs, breathing in toxic chemicals, loneliness and hours of driving in North Jersey, through some of the most congested traffic in the country. Back then, Ursula was working at up to three houses a day, cleaning bathrooms and kitchens, doing laundry, and taking out the garbage. And then quickly grabbing lunch to eat in the car on the way to the next house, while still making sure there was time to spend with her growing children.
And in eighteen years, she has never had a single complaint about her work. Well…except for her very first job. In Brazil, she explained, “You go in the bathroom…throw water everywhere…get the broom and brush everything.” No one told her that this could ruin the hardwood floors of New Jersey suburban homes, so her methods sent this first family into a tailspin. After that, she quickly adapted to the work, which she has done with pride for almost two decades. But she isn’t nearly as proud of that as she is about the fact that her kids are all grown up and just as independent as she has always been determined to be.
While her kids are healthy and have everything they need, taking care of herself has been another thing entirely. At times, she has had to apply for assistance from the government to cover her own medical expenses. It was then that she learned just how indifferent public policies, government bureaucracy, and even clients are to the nature of her job. It’s hard to prove just how much money you make in a year when you get paid in cash. And employers would rather avoid paying taxes than sign paperwork verifying that the person who takes care of everything that is most precious to them is entitled to care.
“So sometimes, you make like, five-hundred a week, but you can just prove three. And then the government says, how do you live off of three-hundred a week? That’s not possible. You pay rent, you have kids…So they say you’re lying.” I can’t imagine asking for care that is urgent and necessary only to be accused of lying about your work, the same work that affords millions of other people the comforts that many of us aspire to. Domestic work, after all, is the work that makes all other work possible.
As our interview came to an end, I began to see a certain vulnerability behind Ursula’s cool exterior. Two thriving kids, a lifetime of satisfied clients, and a carefree attitude, for Ursula, still doesn’t equate to success. Her lack of resources to financially plan or even think about the future is what places her squarely within the world of the working poor. If she loses work and misses a car payment her car will get repossessed. If she can’t pay her rent or other bills, there’s no severance package to tide her over until the next job. “[T]he bills always come,” she reminds me, but she could lose her wages at any time. Employers, even those with whom she has had long-term relationships, think nothing about letting their household help go without notice.
“I work so good for them,” Ursula laments, “I help them every time they need me, and then they just say that to me like I’m nothing. I’m furniture you don’t need anymore and you throw out.”
In a moment when it seems that everyone is an armchair expert on the politics of poverty, when Ursula’s children ask her why she works so hard and has so little she doesn’t have an answer. Domestic workers have always been at the center of this discourse, trotted out as exemplars of the promise of America or its decline, depending on who is doing the talking. For that reason, there’s something really special and important about letting Ursula, and all her contradictions, speak for themselves. “My name is Ursula Simone de Assis. I am 50 years old. I’m from Brazil and I do house cleaning for a living.” Resisting my own urge to wax poetic about all that Ursula stands for, I will yield the microphone to Ursula, and others like her, who truly understand what it means to work hard for a living and still struggle to get by.