The Moneyist: I didn’t feel well last month and asked my housekeeper to stay home. I am nervous about having her come back. She asked for unpaid wages. What should I do?

The Moneyist

Published: April 7, 2020 at 9:50 a.m. ET

‘I would like to help her, but I thought she was self-employed and, therefore, knew her income would fluctuate’

The Moneyist answers dilemmas in an age of coronavirus.

Dear Moneyist,
My housekeeper would like to receive money while she’s not working. She works for me for 4 hours a month, and I pay her approximately $120 cash each month. We pay her well, although she is hardly a full-time worker. In fact, she is barely part time. She has helped us out around the house for about 8 months. I had a bad case of the regular flu, and I asked her not to come last month. I do not believe that I had COVID-19. I do not know whether she has a valid working visa, or not.
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We are afraid to have her here because she lives in a house with several people who belong to some kind of religious cult. We need to be careful not to contract coronavirus. We will basically meet every person she has come into contact with, if she comes here to clean. She has asked that I send her money for days that she has not worked. I would like to help her, but I thought she was self-employed and, therefore, was aware that her income would fluctuate. What do you think I should do?

Wondering in St. Paul, Minn.
Dear Minnesota,
I don’t want to play word games with you, but I think you should do with what makes you feel comfortable. That said, I applaud your housekeeper for being assertive and asking for wages that she would otherwise have earned while you were sick. I have no doubt that — like millions of other workers living under stay-at-home orders — there have been many housekeepers who have been furloughed, and who have not been able to make ends meet during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some undocumented housekeepers and nannies have been unable to receive unemployment benefits. One could take several positions on this: “She is here without the required papers, so that’s not my problem, right? We don’t have a written contract of employment. I don’t owe her anything.” Or you could take the view: “I was not feeling well. It’s not her fault. I will pay her regardless, as I know that I turned a blind eye to the fact that she probably did not have a valid visa. I am accountable too.”
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If I lived in poverty before I moved here, I am sure I would have wanted a better life for me and/or my children. I am a first-generation immigrant in the U.S., but I have also been called an expat. (I’ve been called a lot worse.) Both are true, but the second confers privilege. I am aware that I grew up in a country that provided free university education. Relatively speaking, I had a huge head start in life. What’s more, those I see questioned at Dublin Airport when I go back there rarely look like me.
I tell you that not to “virtue signal,” but to say that we all bring our own world view to such situations. That is mine — a first-generation Irishman in America. I am also mindful of the generations of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. before me were not always as fortunate as I have been. And so I suggest you pay her for the time you were sick; if you don’t want to continue the working relationship because of her living circumstances and/or the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s OK too.
If you can afford it, it would be a decent gesture to pay your housekeeper for one month, or pay her for as long as the “social distancing” continues, whichever lasts the longest. There’s an old biblical story about putting bread on the water: It floats downstream to feed those who may need it and, one day, someone upstream will do the same for you. It should be a clean break and, I hope, becomes a useful example of how to deal with potentially awkward situations for your children.
Ask yourself, “How would I like her to treat me, if the tables were turned?” And do that.
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You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at [email protected]
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