Domestic workers are essential, but undervalued. Let’s change that. - Women's Foundation California
Leila Roberts
Leila Roberts

by Leila Roberts, Mujeres Unidas y Activas volunteer

It’s 1976. Adèle holds my hand as we cross the busy street. She laughs at something I say, and her smile is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I have a huge crush on my nanny. Though she was my caregiver nearly forty years ago, Adèle dwells in me. If we met again today, I would cry with joy.

What she did is repeated in the millions every day. The domestic workers who – with tenderness and dignity – feed and wash and bathe grandpa who has dementia, or your cousin with multiple sclerosis. The domestic workers who leave your home gleaming—a peaceful refuge after a long workday. The domestic workers who love and teach and care for your children. Why did NPR journalist Jennifer Ludden call this critical and sensitive work “under the radar and low-paid,” “haphazard and unregulated”?

She said this on Friday, February 1, during an Aspen Institute panel, Home Economics: a discussion about the unregulated world of domestic work, about the national fight to recognize, support and protect domestic workers.

I am not a domestic worker, and I can’t afford to hire a domestic worker. So why—beyond memory and sentiment—do I care about this issue? Why did I watch the panel? Why am I asking you to support the campaign to pass a California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2013? Do you believe in just rewards for hard work, in fair and equal treatment under the law, in the healthy connection between living wages for workers and a stronger economy for all, in respecting the “women’s work” of care giving? Then boy do I have a no-brainer for you!

Let’s say you are a domestic worker…

As a domestic worker, you are largely excluded from wage and working condition protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act. You might work anywhere from 12 to 24 hours a day with no overtime as did Barbara Young, a key organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. You are likely to live below the poverty level; in fact, there’s a 20% chance that you and your family went hungry in the last month because there was no money to buy food. Your employer may not deduct anything for social security, so after decades of service, you get no SSI benefits. You are supposed to get breaks, but when your employer violates that agreement, you feel you have nowhere to turn… so you face the choice of working without rest or meals, or losing your family’s income.

As a domestic worker, you don’t have collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act, so it’s only through guts and good luck that you may have negotiated a fair contract with your employer. You have friends who aren’t so well served; and the stories they tell of hunger wages, abusive and exploitative bosses, and no recourse under the law have made you terrified to lose this good job.

As a domestic worker, you are invisible. Your work happens in private homes, behind closed doors. The government doesn’t collect data about you because employment regulations don’t cover you. The National Domestic Worker’s Alliance just released an important national study that begins to correct that invisibility, for the first time: Home Economics, the invisible and unregulated world of domestic work.

As a domestic worker, you are essential to the economy. While 21% of jobs lost during this recession were low-wage jobs, 58% of the recovery is in low-wage jobs like retail, construction, and domestic work. And this trend will continue into the future. In fact, care giving is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. The US Census Bureau estimates that, by 2050, nearly one in five Americans will be 85 and older, and likely in need of special care. And we all know about the growing number of families whose parents work outside the home full-time. These trends show us that domestic work is a growth industry for decades to come.

Watching this Aspen Institute panel discussion, you’ll hear Judy Patrick, President & CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California, say, “Let’s make these better jobs, because this is where the jobs are.” There is plenty for philanthropists to support in this cause, she adds: training and certification programs for key domestic work skills, advocacy to change systems and regulations, communications to change minds, and certainly alliance building.

If you employ a domestic worker, you can create or join one of the domestic employers’ coalitions who are lobbying fiercely for domestic workers’ rights and better regulations and guidelines (like these Kitchen Table Dialogues.) You can also protect yourself and your caregiver by adopting some of the best practices worked out by Hand in Hand, the Domestic Employers Association.

If you are a domestic worker, you can learn about the rights won in New York in 2010, and fight for a California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights by joining one of the California coalition members.

If you see the connection among Medicaid/Medicare/Social Security funding, workforce development for caregivers, and domestic workers’ rights, you can join the Caring Across Generations campaign.

The reality is, while it may be a low-wage job today, domestic work is critical to our economy and the well-being of our families. And it requires all the management skills of any other job: negotiation, time management, human relations, working efficiently with scarce resources, a little bit of medicine and psychology, and more. So why shouldn’t domestic workers have the respect and basic rights due to any employee?

Winning full federal recognition of domestic workers will be a long, hard road, but meanwhile California can do the smart thing and prepare for the future by making sure that the people—almost all women—who skillfully care for our families and homes have the basic rights and protections that other employees have counted on for more than eighty years.

This work is powered by you.

The feminist future we are building together in California is going to be built by all of us sharing our time, our money, and our skills.  Please consider contributing today.

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