BURBANK, California — Domestic workers in the US are underpaid and over-utilized, but are largely exempt from protection by labor laws, said Ai-Jen Poo, President of National Domestic Workers Alliance.
The well-known labor rights activist is currently heading up a campaign to pass the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, and in the Senate by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and Ben Lujan, D-New Mexico.
In April, the NDWA — in collaboration with the Care Can’t Wait coalition — won a major victory: President Joe Biden issued 50 executive orders directed at improving care and protections for domestic workers. April has been designated Care Workers Recognition Month.
“Across America, care workers help raise our children, assist seniors as they age with dignity, and support people with disabilities, giving families peace of mind and making it possible for millions of Americans to earn a paycheck while their loved ones are safe and secure,” said Biden in a statement announcing the executive orders. “These unsung heroes strengthen our communities and form the backbone of our nation’s economy.”
Low Pay, No Sick Leave
The president noted that domestic workers are among the lowest paid workers in the US economy, and often juggle multiple jobs while struggling to care for their own households.
“Family care givers are especially overstretched,” said Poo July 19, speaking at The Scan Foundation’s first Advancing Health Equity in Aging summit. “Other countries have a social safety net. We use workers to take care of our families, but they are grossly underpaid, have no sick time, and sometimes no days off,” she said.
“We have worked to make childcare and elder care good paying jobs, with access to medical leave and paid time off. The progress has been slow and incremental,” said Poo.
Domestic Workers Bill of Rights
Poo has worked on labor rights issues since 1996, and was the 2014 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “Genius Grant.”
The NDWA was established in 2007. It achieved its first victory three years later, when the state of New York passed the nation’s first-ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
The new law provided comprehensive employment benefits to domestic workers, including overtime pay, paid vacation, sick time, and health insurance coverage. The legislation was revised in 2021 to add additional protections including provisions for undocumented workers, who often face wage theft by their employers. In New York, domestic workers are defined as full-time nannies, au pairs, housekeepers, and the caretakers of elderly people.
The Value of Stories
Poo spoke about the power of hearing directly from people she hoped to impact. “When we first set out to rewrite labor laws in New York, we realized we had to ask domestic workers what they really needed.”
The NDWA set up a conference, reaching out to potential attendees at churches, parks, and other venues. “We listened to each one of them for hours,” she said, noting “there were interpreters in seven languages.”
“Listening to people really helped us win. You have to engage with people who have the most at stake.”
Poo shared her credo: “Listen to learn, not confirm.”
10 states have now adopted legislation to protect domestic workers. California passed AB 241 in 2013, granting, in part, overtime pay to domestic workers at one and a half times their regular rate of pay for any hours worked in excess of nine hours in a day or in excess of 45 hours in a week.
Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Virginia also have some version of a Domestic Workers Rights Bill. And three cities have also passed similar legislation: Philadelphia, Chicago, and Seattle. Philadelphia’s law is considered the strictest in the nation, requiring a written contract with a description of duties, along with rest breaks and meal breaks, as well as paid time off.
The attempts to establish such legislation have received push-back from organizations supporting differently-abled people. “Raising the minimum wage for personal attendants without raising Medicaid resources meant that many people would lose access to their care providers. People couldn’t afford care,” explained Poo. She stressed the need to expand financial resources to the disabled community.
“So many false choices trap us,” said Poo. “We need to find the emotional truth.”
“Our biggest challenge is making people understand that change is possible,” she said. “I can’t believe how far we’ve come.”