Domestic Workers Are Organizing to Make Care Work a 2020 Election Issue

Angella Foster, 56, has worked as a nanny in the Boston area since immigrating from Jamaica in 2000. She is also a local political activist. Foster has been reaching out to voters since the early days of the 2020 presidential primary, before COVID-19 hit.

“At first, I was fearful to canvas door to door in case I came across someone who was racist, but I knew I had to do it. I did it for myself, and for the next generation,” Foster told Truthout.

Since the pandemic has made in-person canvassing unsafe, Foster plans to reach voters this fall through text and phone banking. Foster received training this summer through the gender-equality organization Supermajority, through which she learned about voter suppression tactics, voter outreach strategies, and how to identify disinformation around voting and elections.

“I am organizing virtual get-out-the-vote parties, and calling all my relatives and friends who are eligible to vote. I’m telling them to vote to stand up for their fundamental rights,” Foster said. “I am doing all that I can to get out the vote.”

Foster is one of many domestic workers — nannies, housekeepers and caregivers laboring in private homes — who are active in the 2020 election. Their outreach to voters is part of a national strategy, led by Care in Action, to talk with voters throughout the country about the value of caregiving work.

In recent years, domestic workers have been educating the public and local policy makers throughout the country about the need for stronger labor standards and protections. A 2012 report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which includes surveys of more than 2,000 domestic workers across 14 U.S. cities, found that 67 percent of those surveyed were not paid for their overtime work and 35 percent of domestic workers reported working lengthy shifts without breaks, among other concerning trends. These trends reflect the historic exclusion of domestic workers within basic labor laws; New Deal legislation such as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded domestic workers from basic protections including minimum wage and overtime.

Recent worker-led advocacy over the past several years has secured domestic workers’ bills of rights in nine states, as well as the city of Seattle. These state and local laws seek to establish baseline protections for domestic workers.

Now, urging participation in the election is another strategy toward empowering domestic worker advocates, and achieving the broader goal of making domestic labor visible in the economy and society. And as the country reels from the coronavirus pandemic, which has now claimed more than 200,000 U.S. lives, advocates and workers see the power of lifting up the importance of caregiving among the electorate.

“One of the most incredible things that’s been happening during the pandemic is that it has really blown open the importance of caregiving work for society’s most vulnerable, and shown that care is a collective responsibility,” Jess Morales-Rocketto, executive director of Care in Action, told Truthout. “Care isn’t a partisan issue, and it really is the future of work.”

Care in Action provides scripts to worker-leaders like Foster to refer to as they engage in voter outreach in states throughout the country; the scripts focus on the need for stronger policies around caregiving.

“What we are finding is that because of the pandemic, most of the time we don’t even need to bring up the importance of valuing caregivers — voters are bringing that up on their own,” Morales-Rocketto said. “The salience of the issue couldn’t be more clear to voters than it is now.”

The growing activism of domestic workers is supported by national organizations, and stems from the relentless work of grassroots workers’ rights groups like New Florida Majority, which has for years been advocating for and supporting domestic workers.

Since its founding in 2009, New Florida Majority’s membership has grown to comprise thousands of low-wage communities of color in Florida, including domestic workers, farm workers, retail workers and local government employees. Currently, New Florida Majority is organizing around Amendment 2, a ballot initiative to raise Florida’s minimum wage from $8.56 to $15.

During the 2016 election, Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority and a co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, led a delegation of 20 domestic workers to Florida to knock on doors and participate in phone banking.

“This year, we can’t have in-person engagement due to the pandemic,” Mercado said. “But our members are calling voters in Florida and all over the country, in multiple languages.”

Matahari Women Workers’ Center is a Boston-area grassroots nonprofit that has been cultivating the leadership of domestic workers since 2002. Angella Foster first became aware of her rights through Matahari.

In previous nanny positions in Boston, Foster was denied promised vacation days and was only paid for half a day after working on Christmas Eve — reflecting trends found in NDWA’s research. Some employers canceled at the last minute and would not pay Foster, causing her to unexpectedly lose significant income. After Foster became active in Matahari in 2014, she received training on how to negotiate for fair wages and working conditions.

“When I look back at those past situations, I feel so much hurt and anger,” Foster said. “Knowing my rights now, I can advocate for myself.”

Reaching out to voters is an opportunity for Foster to talk about the issues impacting her and many other domestic workers.

“To me, voting means [securing] fair wages for domestic workers. Voting to me means women’s empowerment,” Foster told Truthout. “And voting means securing immigration reform.”

Given that many domestic workers like Foster are immigrants, activism is also an opportunity to educate the public about threats facing immigrant women. Indeed, Foster fled Jamaica for the United States to escape an abusive marriage.

And Lydia Nakiberu, 41, immigrated from Uganda in 2005. She has since worked in the Boston area as a caregiver for the elderly. Nakiberu became active in Matahari in 2012.

“My pay used to be low until I joined Matahari and then I came to know my worth,” Nakiberu told Truthout. She currently earns more than the Massachusetts minimum wage.

“Many women immigrants feel isolated, but because of Matahari, we laugh and cry together. Matahari gives us that space and community to talk about what issues we are going through,” Nakiberu said.

Like Foster, Nakiberu recently participated in a Supermajority training, and she plans to join national phone and text banking efforts this fall.

“I want all Black women domestic workers to know why it is important to vote, to fight for justice,” Nakiberu said. “To get all of these things, we have to go out and vote. Even people who don’t earn a lot of money — they should know that their vote is powerful.”

Women’s participation in social movement and campaign work is far from a new phenomenon — but much like domestic labor, women’s contributions in these spaces have historically been devalued and rendered invisible. Women of color in the United States have long formed the backbone of social movements but were often not recognized for their contributions.

And women have often served as the invisible volunteer labor force for political campaigns. In her memoir, My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem writes that many young women volunteers for Democrat Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign were literally forced to remain invisible, hidden on an upstairs floor of the Washington, D.C., campaign office, when Stevenson visited.

Today, more women of color — including low-wage-earning women of color — are visible and active in designing political agendas that center their lived experiences. Years of in-person organizing has enabled domestic worker advocates to form the basis of their legislative priorities.

“Women of color have always been the backbone of grassroots organizing, but men have been at the forefront and in visible leadership roles,” Mercado said. “Now, women of color are at the forefront of leading grassroots movements for transformative change. We’ve been claiming our rightful place.”

Monique Nguyen, executive director of Matahari Women Workers’ Center, has also seen a shift in the inclusivity of feminist political organizations as more feminist organizations are now led by women of color.

“This new wave of feminism, in conjunction with the strong local foundation of civic engagement, has made an undeniable signal boost for low-wage women workers! Really exciting times,” Nguyen told Truthout.

The visibility of women of color is growing, and the pandemic may be driving home the importance of caregiving among more voters. But in a deeply fraught political climate with many issues at stake, is the larger political establishment really advocating for domestic workers and low-wage workers?

Some Democratic Party leaders are showing that they understand the power of care work in the economy; this was evident in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech highlighting her Aunt Bee who cared for her two children for 16 years. Senator Warren’s speech illustrates the critical role nannies like Angella Foster play for U.S. families. As a nanny, Foster has helped raise more than 30 children in the Boston area over the last 20 years.

In 2019, a federal domestic workers’ bill of rights was introduced in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The bill would help ensure that domestic workers throughout the country are paid overtime, have safe working conditions, protection from harassment, and receive seven paid sick days per year, among other protections. The need for such protections has become even more clear due to COVID-19 and its impact on domestic workers.

One hundred and one Democrats across the House and Senate have sponsored the federal legislation, though it has not yet moved forward beyond being introduced. The Biden campaign has expressed support for the federal domestic workers’ bill of rights. There is not currently any indication that President Trump supports the domestic workers’ bill of rights.

This legislation is perhaps the strongest development at the federal level since 2013, when domestic worker advocates succeeded in securing rule changes to include home care workers in minimum wage and overtime laws during the Obama administration.

However, most policy progress has taken hold at the local and state level. Meaningful federal reforms for domestic workers and all low-wage workers remain elusive. As one example, the federal minimum wage has remained stagnant at $7.25 per hour since 2009, and is likely to remain the same unless there is a power shift this fall. Persistent threats to immigration, which have intensified under the current administration, impact many domestic workers and low-wage workers as well.

Domestic worker advocates are committed to educating voters about how valuing care work can address all of these issues.

“I would like voters to know that domestic workers have gone through a lot; we are accustomed to being devalued,” Nakiberu said. “So, I want to educate people about the federal domestic workers’ bill of rights as well as threats to immigration. And if people vote, they must only consider candidates who value and respect domestic workers.”