Domestic Workers Struggle in Wake of Woolsey

Margarita Gil

Margarita Gil has been working for Malibu families for 10 years. As a domestic housecleaner, the El Salvador native has been connected to locals in Malibu and nearby Topanga and Calabasas as she cleans and keeps in order families’ most intimate spaces—their homes and most private possessions. The cheerful 46-year-old slogs the hour drive each way from her home in Los Angeles to Malibu four days a week to work for “her families.” Two other days a week, the mother of four works as a home and office cleaner closer to her home near Downtown LA.

Two weeks ago when the Woolsey Fire barreled in to Malibu and surrounding communities Gil, like so many other domestic workers—gardeners, nannies and restaurant workers—was left without employment and worried about her job. 

The Friday morning of the fire, Nov. 9, Gil said she first heard of the fire on television, but figured she could still make it into her client’s home in Topanga. After the long drive in, once she reached her client, there wasn’t much work she could do without electricity. She decided to drive home, but of course hit a wall of traffic as nearly all of Malibu was evacuated to Pacific Coast Highway. She described the traffic on Topanga Canyon as so bad that she decided to take what many locals describe as the “treacherous” Tuna Canyon. The one-way downhill canyon road is notorious as an unpleasant drive, even without the chaos of thousands of people evacuating the area. Gil soon found herself driving downhill on the narrow roadway while other drivers were trying to squeeze past her while illegally taking the road uphill. She somehow made it safely down, she said, still to face a near blockade at Pacific Coast Highway. When Gil finally made it back to Los Angeles, she said she prayed everything would be “OK.”

For nearly two weeks, Gil texted all of her Malibu and Topanga clients to see if they were all right. She heard back from everyone whom she says stayed at hotels, but “one lady—she lives alone—I text her, but she hasn’t answered so I don’t know.” Two weeks later, Gil still hasn’t heard from that client and is worried. She said she thought she was evacuated to a hotel, but hasn’t heard if the house made it. 

Financially, the last two weeks have been difficult for Gil, who still has three children living at home. She’s only been able to work one day in the last two weeks because without a Malibu address she wasn’t able to even get to Topanga. Without work for two weeks, she was only able to pull in $100 from a Los Angeles client. It hasn’t been great for Gil’s husband, either. He’s a gardener who mostly works in Topanga and estimates he lost roughly $3,000 in wages. Without health insurance, each lost day of work adds up for the struggling family that depends on the roughly $160 Margarita takes home each day, along with the amount her husband makes.

Gil said work should pick up for her husband, who can rebuild sprinkler systems, do brush clearance and trim trees, as well as his regular routes.

“Many people say about the fire, ‘Oh don’t worry about rich people,’ but I don’t care if it’s rich people or poor people,” Gil said. “It’s your house. It’s your memories. Your things. Your love. The house is love, for me.”