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Report: America’s Domestic Workers Raise Kids, Care for Seniors, Run Households Without Benefits, Protections or a Living Wage

(Photo: Carlos Lowry / Flickr)

The first-of-its-kind assessment of the domestic workforce finds that the people who substantially help drive the US economy are themselves overworked, underpaid, sometimes abused and often in dire economic straits.

Anna has not had a single day off from work in 15 months. She works for a family of four in Midtown Manhattan, waking up at 6 a.m. with the children she cares for every day. She teaches the children to read, prepares family meals and does the laundry and the house cleaning. Anna takes her rest on a small mattress at 10 p.m. after cleaning the kitchen and putting the children to bed.

Anna’s employer originally offered her $1500 a month to work as a live-in nanny and housekeeper, but she now only receives $620, making her average hourly wage a meager $1.38.

Digna Morales has worked as a nanny in Chicago for the past ten years. Unlike other jobs, caring for and raising children does not always allow caregivers to simply clock out at the end of the day, but Morales has never received overtime pay for the extra hours she spends with kids.

“I care for the children of my employer like they are my own, with so much love and dedication,” Digna said. “But yet we don’t have the right to minimum wage or overtime or even classified as workers.”

Workers like Morales and Anna perform the highly intimate job of raising children and running households. By freeing the time for employers to pursue their more lucrative careers, domestic workers provide a crucial building block of the American economy, but because work agreements are often informal and few regulations and personnel standards exist for those who work in their employers’ homes, many domestic workers struggle with low wages, tough working conditions and even abuse.

Domestic Work Tracked for the First Time

Morales and Anna recently joined more than 2000 nannies, housekeepers and caregivers across the country in sharing their workplace stories with activists and researchers. The result of the survey is a groundbreaking report released this week to shed light the hidden struggles of the domestic workplace, where workers face abuses that would be illegal in any other sector of labor.

“Domestic workers care for our children, they care for our parents and they care for our homes,” said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), one the groups that authored the report. “Yet, all too often, we fail to recognize their importance to our families and to the economy.”

Low pay is common in the field, and 23 percent of the workers surveyed are paid below the minimum wage in their state. Nearly half of those surveyed are not paid enough to adequately support a family, the survey found.

Ten percent reported being paid less than they originally agreed on or not at all in the past year, and 23 percent reported being paid late, an obvious source of stress for working families who need to pay the bills.

“Domestic workers do not enjoy full coverage under US employment law, nor do they receive the workplace protections that most Americans take for granted,” said Professor Nik Theodore of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a co-author of the report. “As a result, they endure profound economic hardships.”

Sixty percent spend more than half their wages on rent or mortgage payments, and 20 percent said there were times in the past month that they could not afford to buy food, according to the report.

Domestic work can be hazardous. Housecleaners, for instance, risk long-term exposure to chemicals, and 29 percent of those surveyed reported skin irritation, while 20 percent reported trouble breathing in the past year.

Despite the health risks, only 4 percent of domestic workers receive health insurance from their employers, and 65 percent work without any health insurance at all. Without binding contracts, some workers are simply fired if they become ill or injured and can no longer work.

The survey reveals that some employers are “terrific, generous and understanding,” but others are “demanding, exploitive and abusive.” Most labor laws and safety policies do not apply to domestic workers, and even when they do, domestic workers – who are often immigrants and women of color – have little power to assert their rights.

Only 8 percent have written contracts with their employers, and the report claims that employers often regard contracts and agreements as non-binding. In interviews, many workers revealed that they fear retaliation from their employers because they have endured verbal, psychological and even physical abuse.

According the report, 91 percent of the domestic workers who encountered problems at their workplace in the past year did not complain out of fear of losing their jobs. Among domestic workers who lost a job, 23 percent were fired for protesting working conditions, and 18 percent were fired for contesting a contract or agreement with their employer.

“People are constantly afraid of losing jobs, ‘what if my employer finds out that I am going to these meetings?'” said Anna Jakubek, who organizes domestic workers in her Polish community in Chicago. “They can fire [you] in a minute.”

Fighting for the Future

Jakubek told Truthout that organizing domestic workers to fight for even the most basic rights presents unique challenges. Many of the people she works with are immigrants; some are undocumented, and the isolated nature of their work makes it difficult to build solidarity. But once workers start talking about their experiences and working conditions, Jakubek said, the abuse they face becomes obvious to them and they want to do something about it.

Coalitions of groups like the NDWA and Domestic Workers United (DWU) are organizing workers across the country to push for legislative reforms that will recognize domestic workers like the rest of the workforce. In 2010, they won a victory when New York City adopted a bill of rights for domestic workers, but Jakubek said the local policy only covers basic concerns.

California recently rejected a similar effort, but state legislators are expected to revisit the issue next year. Lawmakers in Massachusetts and Illinois also are expected to address workplace rights for domestic workers in 2013.

In the meantime, the report recommends that employers step up and be a part of the solution. Employers should educate themselves about fair labor standards and be prepared to provide workers with contracts that provide the same regular pay raises, overtime pay, health benefits and workplace safety measures that they expect for themselves and their families. The struggle for the rights of America’s forgotten workforce, after all, has implications for all of us.

“The challenges facing domestic workers are a window into some of our most pressing social issues – how will families cope with the rising costs of senior care, how will they find high-quality and affordable childcare and what role will immigrant workers play in helping families meet these growing needs?” said NDWA researcher Linda Burnham. “This study is also a call to action. We must forge a path forward with legislative reforms to move us toward a more caring economy.”

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