The Ugly Truth About the Devaluation of Domestic Work

Homecare provider, in-home caregiver, home health aide – we have many names and even more duties, yet workers like me are paid poverty-level wages throughout this country.

There are over 2 million in-home caregivers nationwide, and our workforce is made up of mostly women and people of color. We work hard to keep seniors and people living with disabilities healthy and safe in their homes, and out of more costly nursing homes and institutions. But despite the critical nature of our work, on average, in-home caregivers throughout this country make less than $23,000 a year, and more than half are forced to rely on some form of public assistance.

This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, work that has been traditionally undertaken by women – especially in the domestic sphere – has been under-appreciated and undervalued for centuries.

As a woman of color, I know the impact of this unfair devaluation personally. I work as a homecare provider for my daughter, Ellis, who lives with chronic lung disease. We live in San Diego, where I am a single mother of three. Many of my fellow homecare providers work as caregivers for related and non-family clients, and we are paid just $9.85 an hour. Less than $10 an hour to provide our clients assistance with paramedical care like insulin injections and treatment of wounds, transportation to doctors’ appointments, personal care and bathing, healthy eating and more.

In addition to being a caregiver, I am also the President of the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW). November is National Family Caregivers Month, and here at UDW, we take this time to celebrate all homecare providers. And since in-home caregivers are primarily women of color, I think this is a great time to take a look at why homecare is so often undervalued and figure out how to right this historic wrong.

In-home care is one of many professions that make up the larger domestic care workforce. We are homecare providers, housekeepers, nannies and more.

In the early days of domestic work, many workers were indentured or semi-free laborers. The work was given primarily to African American women who were seen by many as happy to continue serving white families for less than a fair wage in less than decent working conditions. And by 1870, 52 percent of employed women were domestic workers. As more Latina and Asian women joined the workforce as domestic workers, the characterization of our work as not ‘real’ work persisted.

In fact, in 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act became law, domestic workers and farm workers – another profession undertaken primarily by people of color – were conveniently excluded. This meant that the federal government decided our work was not worthy of labor protections, such as a minimum wage and overtime pay. In 1974, when the act was amended to include some domestic workers, homecare providers remained excluded from these protections because of an unfair companionship exemption that likened our work to that of babysitters. We fought hard for change, and this year we won minimum wage and overtime pay for the first time in history.

In recent years, homecare workers and other domestic workers have begun to stand up for ourselves in a major way. Here in California, in-home caregivers and our union UDW have won wage increases in many counties, advocated for the end of cuts to our homecare program and fought for the overtime pay we all deserve. Nationally, homecare providers and family child care providers have joined the Fight for $15, and are working together with other low-wage workers for a living wage.

We have come a long way in the fight for dignity and respect for our work, but we still have a lot more to do. This National Family Caregivers Month, I encourage you to help end the historic devaluation of care work by taking time to honor the work of the caregivers in your life.