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The peril of America’s domestic workers


The day President Trump returned from Walter Reed Medical Center battling COVID-19, it was possible to miss in the news cycle that two White House housekeeping staff tested positive for the virus several weeks prior. Even in the most secure home office on the planet, COVID-19 posed a threat to the lives and livelihoods of those who do some of the most essential work in our economy: caring for our living spaces and the people in them.

Whether at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW or a house on your block, domestic work takes place beyond public view, but its workers are squarely on the frontlines of COVID-19. Domestic workers are the 2.5 million home care workers assisting our elders and other family members with health conditions or disabilities, the nannies caring for our kids, and the cleaners sanitizing our homes. This workforce is overwhelmingly comprised of women, predominantly people of color and disproportionately immigrants to the U.S. As the pandemic emerged, many households that engaged domestic workers — either as independent contractors through agencies or through informal payment — at least temporarily ended their services. These separations severely heightened the financial precarity facing one of America’s largest, and least respected, workforces.

Since March, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) used extensive surveys to track conditions facing domestic workers. Results show that in the early months of the pandemic these workers experienced unemployment rates upwards of 70 percent, with most unclear whether their jobs would return. That is dramatically higher than the peak 14.7 percent unemployment rate in April this year or even the estimated 25 percent unemployment of the Great Depression. Workers surveyed were overwhelmingly the primary breadwinners for their households, and more than half were uncertain whether they would have enough to feed their families. The same proportion were unable to pay the current month’s rent, with eight in ten worrying about evictions.

NDWA Social Innovations Director Palak Shah sees no recovery as yet for this key workforce, remarking, “The impact to domestic workers is devastating. The analysis so far of our surveys continuing through the summer shows these key indicators are still at crisis levels and mostly mirror the spring results.” The organization will release an updated survey report in late October.

Poor job quality for domestic workers is also a pre-existing condition. Home care, childcare, and housecleaning jobs are characterized by low wages, inconsistent hours, few legal protections, and little access to benefits or advancement opportunities. According to PHI, home care workers, who at 2.3 million comprise the majority of the domestic workforce, earned a median annual income of just $17,200 in 2019. Despite their importance to American families, domestic workers have long been underpaid and undervalued due to intersecting legacies of discrimination and exploitation. Care for family members and household spaces has been work typically performed by women, without pay, for centuries. It was central to the labor extracted from Black women during slavery, an “arrangement” whose preservation prompted Southern lawmakers to exclude domestic workers from federal labor protections like the Fair Labor Standards Act. Domestic work has also consistently been among the low-wage professions in which immigrant workers are disproportionately represented and mistreated.

As former home care and childcare aides, we know this work is demanding and underpaid. As advocates now focused on improving job quality, we also know how to create career pathways and transform occupations in these fields. We believe that now is the time to fight for better working conditions for all domestic workers. Caring for our family members and homes is skilled, difficult labor requiring significant physical and emotional endurance. And it is a service we are all likely to need. Over the next 10 years, home care in particular will be among the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. To ensure there are caring professionals available for our families, we must act to extend fair wages and working conditions to domestic workers.

Legislation like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, if adopted at the federal level, would extend pay and leave rights to this workforce, along with health and safety protections especially critical during a pandemic. Similar bills are already in place in nine states, although California’s governor just vetoed a measure to provide domestic workers with basic safety regulations. And a major segment of the domestic workforce would benefit from better-funded Medicaid reimbursement rates for long-term care services, mandating long overdue wage increases for home care workers.

Each of us should also do our part to recognize domestic work is a profession critical to the economy’s functioning. This begins by seeing domestic workers — and seeing what they do as real work. Home care workers, nannies and housecleaners have long kept our homes and families safe; it’s past time for us to do the same for them.

Angelina Del Rio Drake is Chief Operating Officer at PHI, a Job Quality Fellow at The Aspen Institute, and a former home care worker. Mark G. Popovich is Director of the Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative within the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. He worked in childcare and lower-wage food service, maintenance, and other jobs early in his career.

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