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Domestic Workers Unite to Demand Their Due

California Domestic Workers Rally in Sacramento, April 13, 2011. (Photo: Maria Guillen / Jobs with Justice)

For several years, Marguerite* had what she considered an ideal job. An immigrant from the island of Dominica, she worked as a nanny for two children, ages 3 and 5, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “The employer was great,” she begins. “They paid for my health insurance, gave me two weeks paid vacation and several sick days, and treated me well.”

Then an accident occurred. “I got hit by a car,” said Marguerite. “I was badly injured and had to have surgery, then physical therapy, to fully recover. It took me nine months to feel well enough to return to work. By that time, the family had hired a new nanny and I had to find another job.”

This time, Marguerite was not so lucky. “When the lady interviewed me, she made it seem perfect, but once I started I realized that she was going to pay me off the books. There is no health insurance, and she and her husband get very upset if I say no to them. They demand that I come in early, or stay late, and don’t respect that I have a life of my own, a 12-year-old child of my own, who I have to care for. My mom helps me, but I hate that these people refuse to pay overtime and talk to me as if I’m a third grader.”

Although Marguerite doesn’t plan to stay at this job any longer than necessary, she also knows that, as a New Yorker, she has legal recourse. The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, passed in 2010, guarantees all domestic workers in New York state – nannies, housekeepers, gardeners and providers of elder care – mandatory time-and-a-half after 40 hours of labor, one day off per week, and three paid holidays after the first year of employment.

To date, New York is the only state to afford domestic workers these protections, but California is presently poised to pass a similar bill, and next year, during the 2012-2013 legislative session, pro-domestic-worker legislation will be introduced in Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington.

By all accounts, the challenge of organizing a workforce that typically works in isolated private homes is enormous. Domestic workers often care for children, but growing numbers now care for elders, as well. Today’s eldercare workers are estimated at 2.5 million and are expected to grow to nearly 3.5 million by 2018. This growth would be wonderful if the field paid well, but it does not. According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI) the median pay for home care workers in 2010 was $9.40 an hour, more than $6 less than the hourly median earned by American workers overall. Not surprisingly, nearly half of all homecare workers are forced to supplement their wages with food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing, home energy assistance or child care benefits.

Ai-jen Poo was one of the founders of the New York-based Domestic Workers United – the group that spearheaded the campaign for passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights – and now heads the five-year-old National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). “Domestic Workers United emerged in 2000 to organize an industry-wide, multiracial voice for domestic workers, one focused on organizing previously unorganized groups of women, most of them immigrants,” she says.

“NDWA, the national group, was formed in 2007 at the US Social Forum by 13 organizations from six cities. Over the past few years, we’ve grown to 35 groups from 17 cities in 11 states.”

The group’s mission has expanded from an initial focus on nannies to include organizing home health aides and eldercare providers, Poo says. The reason? Pragmatics. Poo reports that several years ago, DWU members began asking for training in elder care. “They were being asked to care for aging relatives in the home, and since so many were being pulled in to fill the care gap within families, it became obvious that we had to mobilize. We recognized that between people living longer and baby boomers starting to turn 65, we’d soon have the largest older population we’ve ever had in this country. The need for long-term care is skyrocketing. The squeeze is now on, and the question of how to support families and keep people in their homes as long as possible represents a huge political opportunity.”

NDWA calls it Caring Across Generations, a broad national effort to bring seniors, the disabled, and their caregivers and families into coalition to demand that the federal government create 2 million new home care jobs, with career advancement opportunities and a path to citizenship for those workers who want it. The campaign is also calling for the expansion of Medicare to cover in-home services, something that is currently not offered.

PHI is actively supporting Caring Across Generations – as are numerous trade unions and religious, immigrant and workers’ rights groups – and is pushing to change the law that treats home care workers differently from workers in other sectors. According to the PHI web site, the problem dates back to 1974, when Congress amended the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to include chauffeurs, cleaners, full-time nannies and housekeepers, but defined those who assist the elderly and disabled as “companions,” thereby exempting them from minimum wage requirements and overtime protections.

“Caregiving is hard work, but it is not as valued or respected as it should be,” argues Karen Kahn, PHI’s director of communications. “On the deepest level, the issue we have to confront is that women are expected to do this work for their families – regardless of whether they have jobs outside the home or have the skill and temperament to do so. In addition, there is still not consensus that caregiving is a government responsibility.”

“I also don’t think there’s enough recognition that caring for children, elders and people with disabilities is a great way to keep our economy going,” said Kahn. “When home care workers earn money, they spend money.”

“We are not saying that families have no responsibility, but the issue is how we, as a country, can help them meet this responsibility. We have to decide what we’re willing to pay for and recognize that domestic labor is real labor.”

Tracy Scott, a 56-year-old technical writer from Brooklyn, got a crash course in the realities of elder care last spring when she and her brothers had to hire a live-in caregiver for their parents. “My parents – my dad is 89 and visually impaired and my mom is 84 and has severe osteoporosis and is recovering from open-heart surgery – are depleting their savings to pay for this, but it is still cheaper than a nursing home, which can run $70,000 per person per year, and which they did not want,” she says. “Lidia gets room and board and is paid $135 a day. She helps my mom with bathing and with getting dressed, prepares meals, does the laundry and dishes, takes my mom to medical appointments, and dispenses her medication. She does not clean the house or go grocery shopping, but she makes sure that my mom walks every day and is effectively doing physical therapy with her. She has skills that no one in my family has, like knowing how to move my mom from her wheelchair to the chair in the shower.”

What’s more, having Lidia in the home 24 hours a day, seven days a week means that Scott’s parents can remain in the residence they’ve lived in since 1969. That said, Scott worries about what will happen when her parents’ savings are depleted. Under current law, once they “spend down,” they may be eligible for Medicaid but can be asked to sign a lien, agreeing to reimburse the government for their care once they pass on and their home is sold.

Scott says that she and her siblings will cross that bridge when they come to it. Nonetheless, she is angry about the lack of support for people who are vulnerable. “Both daycare and elder care should be government responsibilities,” she concludes. “People need to be adequately cared for, and workers need to be adequately compensated to ensure that they’re not exploited. It’s great that government funds senior centers, but it also needs to do something for those who are not mobile.”

One step involves amending the Fair Labor Standards Act to include “companions,” a campaign that has the support of President Obama but is being opposed by Republicans. Another move is passing and then enforcing bills like the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Priscilla Gonzalez is the executive director of Domestic Workers United. “We’re working in collaboration with the New York State Department of Labor to make information on the law available to both domestic workers and the people who employ them,” she says. “A hotline – 646-699-3989 is available for people to call and we’ve set up a legal clinic in conjunction with the Urban Justice Center.”

“Over the last few years,” said Gonzalez, “we’ve been able to settle more than 75 percent of the cases that have come in without having to go to court. In addition, we’ve created something akin to shop stewards. We’ve trained members – we call them ambassadors – to go into neighborhoods where large numbers of domestic workers live or work. They distribute Know Your Rights fact sheets and serve as advisers. So far, we’ve trained 25 ambassadors.”

While the word ambassador might sound grandiose to some, both NDWA and DWU emphasize the importance of grassroots, on-the-ground organizing. “Organizing domestic workers is a way to connect disparate movements,” Yashna Padamsee, administrative coordinator of NDWA, stresses. “When domestic workers speak, they don’t just speak as domestic workers. They speak as immigrants, as women, as people who give care and receive care. When we talk about an issue, we connect it to other issues. We look for the intersectionality, the ways things connect, the places where the personal and political intertwine.”

Nellie, a 52-year-old Guyanese immigrant who has worked as a nanny for more than 30 years, is well aware of the ways anti-immigrant attitudes, racism, sexism and the violation of workers’ rights can collide in the workplace. “Being a nanny is not a job for a machine,” she says. “I love kids and love watching them. I clean, feed and take excellent care of every child in my charge. But it takes energy to do this. I’ve had bosses who’ve wanted me to iron and do laundry while the kids nap as if I don’t need a break during the day. I’ve had employers who’ve wanted to hold my passport while I worked for them. I tell them” ‘No way. I am a human being just like you. How you want to be treated is how I should be treated.’

“Taking care of kids, or taking care of old people or those who are sick, is the most important work a person can do. It makes me furious when bosses treat domestic workers rudely – I heard about a woman who was called a black bitch by her boss – or don’t want to pay us what we deserve. At the same time, I know that many people are scared for their jobs, afraid that if they talk about their rights, the boss will hire someone else, or even worse, call immigration and have them deported. This is not an easy fight, but we have to do something.”

*The names of all the workers interviewed for this story have been changed.

PHI has created a petition to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to end the exemption for caregivers labeled as “companions.” The petition is available here.

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