Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on live-in care workers in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland

Michael Leiblfinger and Veronika Prieler (Austria), Karin Schwiter and Jennifer Steiner (Switzerland), Aranka Benazha and Helma Lutz (Germany)

14th May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has massively restricted the circular migration of live-in care workers between their home countries in Central and Eastern Europe and seniors’ households in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. In this report, we share insights into the consequences of travel restrictions and other COVID-19 related measures for transnationally organised live-in care. We show how these three countries respond differently but how, in each case, the measures taken subordinate the interests of care workers to those of care receivers. Furthermore, the measures remain short-term fixes that fail to acknowledge the fundamental flaws and inequalities of a care model that relies primarily on migrant workers and on wage differentials within Europe.

The fragility of a transnational care arrangement

The live-in care model in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland is based on mostly female workers from Central and Eastern European countries providing care for an elderly person (or a couple) in the senior’s home. Typically, two (or more) carers alternate in shifts of two- to twelve-weeks and commute between their homes in e.g. Poland, Romania, or Slovakia and their workplace. They spend their shifts living in the homes of the people they provide care for and are usually on-call (nearly) around the clock. Most live-in care workers are brokered by agencies which frequently also organize transportation, collection of payments, and other tasks. Although to different extents and not uncontested, live-in care has become an increasingly established model for care in the German-speaking countries (Steiner et al. 2019).

In the past few weeks, closed borders and other travel restrictions under COVID-19 have made the fragility of such a transnational care arrangement apparent and brought live-in care onto the political agenda (Leiblfinger/Prieler 2020; Leichsenring et al. 2020a ; Schilliger et al. 2020). In each of the three destination countries, measures have been taken to safeguard the model. First, these measures aim at keeping care workers in the country and second, they strive to re-establish the transnational mobility of carers. Supporting care workers left without income, however, is not on the agenda.

Extending workers’ shifts

As a first reaction, agencies and households have asked and sometimes implored their care workers to extend their stays beyond the end of their shifts. Switzerland’s authorities supported this strategy by facilitating the extension of live-in carers’ work permits. Austria’s federal government introduced a one-time, tax-free bonus of 500 Euros for live-in carers who extended their shifts for at least four weeks. In Germany, the largest federation of placement agencies, VHBP, asked the government to establish the same incentives as in Austria (VHBP 2020a), a demand that was repeated two weeks later by accusing the government of bending rules for seasonal agricultural workers (for the asparagus harvest) but remaining firm with regard to carers for older people (VHBP 2020b).

As far as we know, many care workers have extended their shifts in all three countries. Apart from the fact that returning to their home countries has become difficult due to travel restrictions and quarantine regulations, many feel a moral obligation towards the people in their care – especially in this extraordinary situation. At the same time, live-in care givers who stayed face worsening working conditions. Many households have put visiting services on hold for fear of contagion. Relatives who used to replace care workers, typically on Sundays, stay away for the same reason. In some cases, agencies or households even require care workers to remain in the household during their free time to prevent them from catching the virus and passing it on to the person they care for. As a consequence, some live-in carers have been isolated in the household for weeks, either working or on call around the clock with little opportunity to rest. In addition, care workers carry the psychological burden caused by the extended separation from their own homes, families, and friends and by the uncertainty as to how long the pandemic and accompanying restrictions will last (Leichsenring et al. 2020b; Schilliger et al. 2020).

Extending care workers’ shifts has become a ready-made and widely applied solution for many agencies and families in all three countries. However, this practice takes an additional toll on care workers and is only a short-term fix. Extended shifts will not uphold as a solution if limitations to transnational mobility are imposed for more than a few weeks.

Re-establishing transnational mobility

As a second strategy, care agencies and their lobby organisations have demanded exemptions that enable carers to cross closed borders. All three countries have worked with sending countries to open up avenues for such border crossings. However, the extent of their measures to ensure the continuing transnational mobility of live-in care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic differs widely.

In Austria, the federal government actively initiated negotiations with neighbouring countries for free passage of care workers. Furthermore, the provinces of Burgenland and Lower Austria collaborate with the respective local chambers of commerce and brokering agencies to organise charters to fly in 355 live-ins from Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia (ORF 2020a, 2020b). From the second weekend of May, special trains can bring up to 1,000 carers from Timisoara in Romania through Hungary to Austria every week and allow Romanian personal carers to travel back home (Der Standard 2020; ORF 2020c, 2020d).

These measures are likely to be insufficient to ensure the transnational mobility of nearly 62,000 live-in care workers, roughly half of which come from Romania. However, they show the efforts Austria invests in ensuring the continuation of the live-in care model. This cooperatively organised support also highlights the alliance between state bodies, local chambers of commerce, and agencies. For example, tickets for the special trains were originally announced not to be sold to care workers directly, but only via care agencies (Der Standard 2020), which was later renounced (ORF 2020c, 2020d). The necessary information and forms are also in complex and technical German. Thus, while the power of agencies in collaboration with the chambers of commerce as trouble shooters and “saviours” of the model increases, the care workers become even more dependent on support from their agencies (Leiblfinger/Prieler 2020).

In Germany, the only official response by the government regarding care at home is a legislative initiative for family members to provide care for relatives without loss of pay longer than the previously granted two weeks. This measure was introduced as families reported difficulties finding live-in carers and it underlines not only the inherent familialism of the system, but also that live-in carers and family care givers are interchangeable in the government’s eyes. Unofficially, the German border police refrains from checking people at the Polish border – the home country of the majority of carers. It seems that authorities allow care workers to enter Germany. Thus, agencies send minibuses to pick up their migrant carers at the border. Although there is confusion about diverging practices of various federal states, the consensus seems to be that care workers are not obligated to quarantine in Germany as their work is considered crucial for maintaining the care system. However, none of this was publicly announced. The German state seems to have silently adopted a practice of letting care workers in to pacify the families that employ the up to 500.000 migrant carers.

While Austria has created additional paths for care workers and Germany seemingly opened up unofficial ways, Switzerland generally permits entry for work purposes. This includes care workers who are formally employed by an agency or a family and are able to present a valid work permit. The Swiss state or lobbying organisations have not taken further tangible efforts to facilitate the mobility of live-in carers specifically. This reflects the fact that the live-in model has not been established as a pillar in the care system to the same extent as in the other two countries.

By facilitating transnational mobility, all three countries contribute to re-establishing the supply of live-in care workers for their seniors’ households. However, this strategy puts carers at risk of contagion. No matter whether the journeys are organized in chartered flights or trains, or whether care workers travel in shared minibuses or private cars: they will be in close contact with others – especially since they also have to travel to train stations and airports or potentially stop at gas stations, rest stops, and border checkpoints. Moreover, care workers might face the additional burden of being quarantined for two weeks in the destination or home countries – maybe even in both. And they are usually not paid during these periods of isolation (cf. Herrigel et al. 2020 for the similar situation of agricultural workers).

Lacking support for care workers financially affected by the pandemic

While many workers extended their shifts and others are exposed to a risk of contagion on transnational journeys, there is a third group of workers: those stuck in their home countries. Many of them are unable to return to their workplaces or to start a new assignment because of travel restrictions or cancelled assignments. Whereas governments have implemented a variety of measures to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic on both companies and employees, many live-in carers are not eligible for this support.

Austria’s federal government created a hardship fund for small businesses that are economically hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. They can receive emergency aid of up to 2,000 Euros per month for a period of three months. Most care workers, even though they are self-employed, are unable to access this fund. Due to income below the tax threshold, they do not have an income tax assessment notice or a tax number and typically do not have an Austrian bank account – all three requirements to receive hardship support. In addition, the long application form and provided help is only available in German.

In Germany, emergency aid programmes were established for businesses (and their employees) based in Germany. Many carers don’t have German (employment or service) contracts as most of them are either posted under the EU-directive or self-employed in their home countries. Therefore, they are not eligible for the German relief programmes and the pandemic uncovers further difficulties of the transnational live-in model.

In Switzerland, where live-in care workers are employed either by an agency or directly by the household, similar problems exist. Agencies can apply to state-funded short-time allowances (Kurzarbeitsentschädigung) for their employees, which pays 80% of the owed wage. However, this assistance is reserved for companies. As a result, care workers employed by private households or currently without contract fall through the cracks of the state rescue system and often lose their entire income.

The blind spots in the current debate

Even though many are currently praising the importance of care work, our analysis shows that – at least with regard to live-in care – this recognition remains mostly symbolic. While various measures have been implemented to ensure that German, Austrian, and Swiss seniors do not have to do without their live-in care workers, the living and working conditions of the workers themselves have become more precarious. Our report demonstrates that the pandemic does not hit everybody equally. On the contrary, the three governments’ neoliberal care strategies, based on the outsourcing of care to (female) migrants, puts the latter in a catch-22-situation: either they prolong their stay and work in the households of their clients, which leads to extended separation from their own homes, families, and friends; or they expose themselves to risks of contagion on their transnational journeys. The third option is to stay at home, which often leads to financial deprivation. No matter what they decide or are pushed to, their needs are left out of consideration in current pandemic relief measures. The many women working in private households are once again expected to bear the brunt of hardships currently caused by a pandemic.

Furthermore, our report shows that the measures taken are short-term fixes that serve to uphold the live-in care model. They fail to acknowledge the fragility and inequality inherent in this care model, which have become even more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, the model only works as long as transnational differentials in wages and in economic opportunities within Europe are large enough that workers will accept low pay, precarious working conditions, and circular migration that separates them from their homes, families, and friends for extended periods. Second, it relies on uninhibited transnational mobility and requires workers to “commute” long distances – sometimes up to 30 hours – every few weeks to reach their workplaces. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how fast the second requirement can disrupt the model. But even before the pandemic, the cracks in the model were apparent. Having observed the market for several years, we see, for instance, that recruiters have to move further East to find people willing to work under these conditions.

Thus, we need to use the experiences during the current COVID-19 pandemic to reflect the (non-)sustainability of the live-in care model on a fundamental level. Our societies do not gain from merely going back to the way it was before as quickly as possible. Instead, we need to adjust our care policies that they do not require social inequality and uninhibited transnational mobility but enable care workers to have a decent life alongside their work.


We would like to thank the care workers, seniors’ families, agency representatives, and other experts who have been sharing their knowledge on the live-in care model with us for many years. This report in particular benefited greatly from discussions with the working group Precarity of the Swiss think tank Denknetz. It has been written as part of the research project “Decent Care Work? Transnational Home Care Arrangements”, a cooperation of Aranka Benazha, Amanda Glanert, Helma Lutz, Iga Obrocka, and Ewa Palenga-Möllenbeck from Goethe University Frankfurt/Germany; Brigitte Aulenbacher, Michael Leiblfinger, and Veronika Prieler from Johannes Kepler University Linz/Austria; and Karin Schwiter, Jennifer Steiner, and Anahi Villalba from the University of Zurich/Switzerland. The project is funded by the German Research Foundation DFG project no. LU 630/14-1, by the Austrian Science Fund FWF project no. I 3145 G-29, and by the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF project no. 170353.


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