Much more than companions

October 17, 2013

Domestic laborers need workers' rights, but that's just the start, explains Rachel Cohen.

THE U.S. Department of Labor has finally reached the long overdue conclusion that hundreds of thousands of people providing home health care deserve the same rights on the job as everybody else. On September 17, the Labor Department promised to narrow the "companionship" loophole that has until now excluded domestic workers from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which ensures workers' rights to a minimum wage, overtime pay, and meal and rest breaks.

Beginning in 2015, employers of home health care workers will have to pay at least the federal minimum wage, plus overtime if caregivers work more than nine hours a day or 45 hours a week.

It's about time. Domestic workers are not mere "companions" to the people they work for. Home health aides and child care providers undertake vital care, often at wages that suggest their effort must be purely a labor of love. But last month, after 75 years of exclusion, various government officials announced plans to include more domestic workers under laws protecting their labor rights.

Domestic workers marching for fair wages and against painful budget cuts
Domestic workers marching for fair wages and against painful budget cuts (Nic Walker)

The week after the Labor Department announcement, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, granting similar provisions to an estimated 200,000 domestic workers in the state, including some child care providers.

Domestic work can be emotionally taxing, socially isolating and physically demanding--and it frighteningly unregulated. The two measures, one federal, and one in California, address some of the most glaring shortfalls of existing domestic worker protections and reflect ongoing organizing efforts by domestic workers to challenge a range of intolerable conditions.

James Povijua is an organizer in Chicago with Caring Across Generations, a joint campaign of the National Domestic Workers Association (NWDA) and Jobs with Justice (JwJ). He says one of the most common needs in local organizing has been to define workers' pay by the hour, not the day. Sometimes, a health complication can cause a home health care aide's workday to stretch to 12 or 15 hours, in turn, stretching daily pay to below the minimum hourly rate.

NDWA CONDUCTED its own nationwide survey of thousands of nannies, health care givers and housecleaners for a 2012 report entitled "Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work." It documents the wide variety of experiences and issues different domestic jobs present.

Their research found that just 30 percent of domestic workers have a contract with their employer--and even then, contracts are all too often broken. Some 23 percent of workers surveyed are paid below the state minimum wage. Live-in workers face the lowest wages, with live-in house cleaners receiving a median wage of just $5.12 per hour.

One story from the report particularly illustrates how low wages can contribute to domestic workers' vulnerability in the face of dangerous working conditions:

Carmen, a grandmother from Nicaragua, was initially hired as a live-in housecleaner for a Miami couple. After a short time on the job, her responsibilities were expanded to include laundry, gardening, child care and looking after the family's 10 dogs. She was promised lodging and food, though she was only allowed to eat when there was food to spare. For the myriad tasks she performed each day, Carmen was paid $30 some weeks, $50 others, but most of the time, she was paid nothing at all.

When she broke her arm while on the job, she initially tried to work through the pain. As it became clear that she needed medical attention and would not be able to continue working as she had been, her employers fired her, leaving Carmen injured, and without a job or a place to live. Not all domestic workers are treated as poorly as Carmen was, but far too many experience similar abuse.

Racism, sexism and the criminalization of the undocumented can constrain the confidence of individual workers to resist unlivable wages and working conditions. NDWA's report relates that among workers asked to perform tasks outside their job description, 74 percent said they felt they could not refuse the additional work.

Yet even among live-out domestic workers, long hours are a serious problem, and neither the California bill nor the federal rule change define meal or rest breaks. And while live-out workers earn a median wage of $10 an hour, that still leaves 60 percent spending more than half of their income on their own housing.

The NDWA report also recounts the story of a live-out worker named Myrla Baldanado:

Baldanado, a member of the Chicago Household Workers Coalition, cared for more than 20 seniors in her time as a caregiver. She worked 80-90 hours per week, bathing, cooking, feeding, lifting, preparing medication, checking vital signs, housekeeping and communicating with the families of her patients. For this work, she was paid an average of $4.58 per hour. "I could hardly pay my room rental of $300 per month. I have four children. I am diabetic. I was living on poverty wages." She describes eating mostly eggs and bananas in order to stretch her budget. She also faced verbal abuse in the workplace.

AMONG THE highly variable conditions faced by domestic laborers, one factor remains nearly constant: the gender of the workers. The Census Bureau's American Community Survey counts 95 percent of nannies, caregivers and housecleaners as female. Fifty-four percent are women of color, and many are immigrants. They follow generations of working-class, Black, Latina and immigrant women whose work has been deeply undervalued and underpaid.

The same groups disproportionately provide unpaid care to loved ones at home. Every eight seconds, someone in the United States turns 65. Even alongside a rapidly growing workforce of paid home health care providers--the fastest growing section of the workforce--tens of millions of elderly or disabled people rely on a family member to provide direct care.

The most recent of a biannual series of reports prepared by the AARP confirms that two-thirds of these unpaid caregivers are women. On average, they provide 20 hours per week unpaid care work, often resulting in significant lifetime costs to their career, savings and their own health. But most staggeringly, the AARP calculated that if these family members were paid even the current average wages of paid home health care providers, their combined labor in 2009 would have been valued at $450 billion--just for that year.

That's $450 billion that retirees' former bosses aren't paying for their care. And it's more than the total amount of federal and state funding that went into Medicaid that year. Politicians of both parties at the state and federal level demand cuts in funding for "lavish" social welfare programs--from pensions and food stamps to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid--compelling unions like SEIU, which represents home health care workers paid through these programs, to unite with patients and their families to defend against these cuts.

These cuts can also act as a wedge to divide communities that should make common cause. The group Disability Rights California, for instance, said it had to reluctantly oppose the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights for its failure to directly provide any additional means to elderly or disabled patients, many of whom depend on pension or public aid incomes that are under attack in order to pay minimum wages or overtime to health care workers they rely on.

THE BILL also disappointed many domestic workers and their organizations. Sheila Bapat, writing for RHReality Check, explains that Gov. Brown vetoed a bill last year that included more comprehensive protections. For example, a quarter of the live-in workers surveyed by NDWA reported that they had been unable to get more than five hours of uninterrupted sleep for at least one night in the week they were polled. But the legislation passed this year stripped out a provision entitling live-in workers to eight hours uninterrupted sleep per night.

Furthermore, the bill scrapped meal and rest breaks and worker's compensation despite the often physically dangerous and demanding nature of the work. And this Bill of Rights only lasts three years, at which point lawmakers, who dragged their feet for seven years in the passage of this legislation, could decide to let the sun set on domestic workers' rights.

Some speculate that this year, Brown needs to rally Latino voters' support more urgently than in 2012. Sixty-seven percent of domestic workers in California are Latina. But Brown's cuts to low-income health services and veto of a recent bill to fund a new Keeping Adults Free from Institutions program for the disabled repeats a well-worn policy of pitting poor and working people against one another in a politics of resentment.

"We really need a culture change in the way we as a society care for the elderly and people with disabilities," Povijau explains. Organizations in Chicago are working to connect with domestic workers and encourage their voices to be heard. Latino Union's Chicago Coalition of Household Workers recently placed an exhibit documenting domestic workers' stories at the Jane Addams Hull House entitled "Love & Labor: Domestic Workers as Community Docents."

Activists in Illinois, Massachusetts and a few other states are pushing for legislation similar to the domestic worker bill of rights legislation passed in New York, Hawaii and California. Nationally, Caring Across Generations calls for publicly funded home health care jobs that offer quality, affordable care and basic rights for workers, along with immigration reform.

The pivotal role of domestic workers in the lives of the people they care for should provide the basis for a struggle for dignity that unites domestic workers with the retired, parenting and disabled workers who rely on them. Ultimately, the race-to-the-bottom austerity politics imposed by both Democrats and Republicans will have to be upended to demand a single-payer health care system that assures free, quality care to all, along with free child care, full amnesty for the undocumented, meaningful family work leave allowances and much more.

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