Domestic workers — the nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides who care for our young children and elderly parents — have traditionally been excluded from the most basic protections, like minimum wage. Their jobs are inherently insecure, ending abruptly when the child goes off to school or the patient passes on, yet few collect Social Security or are eligible for unemployment benefits. Working behind closed doors in private homes, they are vulnerable to abuse and unable to organize.
Enter Ai-jen Poo. The community organizer has been advocating for domestic workers’ rights for over a decade, and in 2010, led the campaign for the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which theoretically guarantees overtime pay, paid vacation, and basic human and civil rights protections for over 200,000 workers in the state of New York. Now she’s working to bring the same rights to domestic workers nationwide.
This week, Poo’s organization, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the DataCenter, released the first-ever national survey of domestic workers, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work. Poo sees it as a call-to-action for the nation to tackle the problems of this unregulated sphere, problems that in a Venn diagram would overlap with race, immigration, gender, and the modern, middle-class dual-income family.
Lauren Feeney: What are some of the most important findings in your report?
Ai-jen Poo: The fact that the report exists at all is important because for so long there hasn’t been any real data on domestic work, and that’s contributed to the invisibility of these workers and the Wild West nature of this industry. Now we have data from surveys of 2,086 domestic workers in 14 different cities from 71 different countries of origin.
What we found is that the people, mostly women, who we count on to take care of the most precious elements of our lives — our homes and our families — do not earn enough to take care of their own families or themselves. Twenty-three percent of domestic workers earn below minimum wage. That’s not counting live-in domestic workers. Among live-ins, sixty-one percent earn below minimum wage. And I think all of us know that even minimum wage is impossible to survive on.
Feeney: How is it that in 21st century America — after all the successes of the labor movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement — there is still this segment of the population that lacks even the most basic protections under the law? Why were these people left behind?
Poo: One reason is the legacy of racism in this country. In the 1930s, Southern members of Congress refused to support the labor laws within the New Deal if farm workers and domestic workers, who were largely African-American at the time, were included under those protections — protections like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.
The people who have done this work have historically been poor, working poor women — immigrant women, African-American women, white poor and working class women — socially disadvantaged people. Then there’s the fact that this work has been seen as women’s work and has never really been valued or recognized as real work — it’s a battle to even get recognition as work and as workers versus just help or companionship.
All of those factors connected have meant that this work is done in the shadows. Now, with the need for this work just growing exponentially and becoming so much a part of the lifeblood of this country and the economy, we have an opportunity to really turn the tide on that.
Feeney: What makes domestic work so important to the economy?
Poo: The economist Jared Bernstein calls it a “critical input.” We call it the work that makes all other work possible. It’s this invisible layer of work — raising families and taking care of homes — that allows other people to go into their public lives and work, achieve, build.
Feeney: You call for a living wage, paid sick days, paid vacation and health insurance for domestic workers, and I don’t think anyone would argue that these women don’t deserve these basic protections. And of course, it’s easy to point a finger at wealthy executives and politicians who don’t treat their nannies well. But what about middle-class working women with limited options for child and elder care who really can’t afford any more than they’re already paying?
Poo: We need to take a holistic approach that’s not just about workers’ rights but about a whole set of policies that will make it more possible for all of us to take care of the people that we love. So we also promote tax credits and paid family leave policies and all kinds of workplace flexibility policies for working parents.
We’re living in a 21st century economy where the majority of paid workers are women, yet they’re still responsible for the vast majority of caregiving responsibilities. Our society, in the rules and structures that currently exist, has not accounted for that whole arena of work. And the manifestation of that is the low wages and invisibility and abuse of domestic workers. But really every single family is impacted by the fact that we haven’t adequately accounted for the work that goes into caring for families. Families need help, they need childcare, they need eldercare, and they don’t always have the resources to afford it. Why don’t we have universal childcare? Why don’t we have workplace flexibility policies that account for the fact that people get sick and family members have to take care of them? It just seems very basic and it can absolutely be done. We really need to rethink the whole way we account for work and structure the economy in a way that works for everyone.
Feeney: In the meantime, what would you suggest concerned employers do to make sure that they’re treating their caregivers fairly, and what can domestic workers and their allies do to get involved in your campaign?
Poo: If you’re an employer, I would really encourage you to go to the Hand-in-Hand Domestic Employers Association website and sign up for their list. And for domestic workers, I would say join one of our affiliate organizations or the national alliance. We’re doing work in twenty-four cities in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, so we have affiliates all over the place, and if people want to form an organization in their town, we’ll support it. We’ve got big campaigns moving forward in California, Massachusetts and Illinois in 2013, so people can get involved in changing the policies and laws that will affect their lives in the future. That’s a call for employers too — we need employers to support our standards and guidelines, and their voices will be really important in that cause. Finally, there’s a measure that’s waiting in the wings at the Department of Labor that would bring 1.8 million home care workers under federal minimum wage and overtime protection, and we need people to write letters to their local Congress members and to the president himself saying that they want to see homecare workers included under basic protections. We’ve got to take care of our caregivers.