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A Living Wage for Caregivers

Marlene Juarez worked as a nanny for a family near Boston, taking care of four children ranging in age from 6 months to 6 years old; she organized play dates, cooked, did laundry and cleaned a large house. Both parents worked full time and in some weeks asked Juarez to work as many as 60 or 70 hours. Juarez had recently emigrated from Honduras, and was afraid to complain. She couldn’t afford to lose her job. But, once, she requested a few hours off to deal with a personal matter — and in response, her employers docked her pay.

“If you’re reducing my pay when I ask to work less hours,” she said, “shouldn’t you increase my pay when you ask me to work more hours?”

“They said no,” Juarez recalled. “They said I had no right to overtime.”

Juarez’s experience is common. There are 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States — nannies, housekeepers and caregivers — and although domestic work is the nation’s fastest growing occupation, with a million new jobs expected within the next 10 years, this work remains hidden in a poorly regulated shadow economy in which abuses are rampant.

One-quarter of domestic workers are paid below the minimum wage, according to a national survey — with the average annual pay for all being just above $17,000. Few workers receive overtime. In Manhattan, health care and personal care are among the lowest paid occupations; only food preparers and servers do worse. (If you take care of machinery instead of human beings you earn twice as much.) Moreover, most domestic workers lack the basic job protections that Americans in other professions take for granted: contracts, sick leave, vacation days, matched contributions to Social Security, retirement benefits.

Today, however, Juarez knows her rights well (and, yes, in Massachusetts she is entitled to overtime pay). In fact, she and colleagues like Angela Foster — a veteran nanny who discovered the domestic workers movement two years ago at a workshop duringNational Nanny Recognition Week (mark it: the fourth week in September) — now regularly conduct training sessions to teach others about their rights.

They work as member leaders with an organization called Matahari: Eye of the Day, (matahari, in Malay, means sun). The group is part of the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers, which successfully lobbied for passage of a domestic workers’ bill of rights. Juarez had grown so emboldened that she successfully lobbied her own city, Lynn, Mass., to adopt a resolution in support of that bill of rights. “For me this experience has been marvelous,” she added. “I’m helping others to know about the law, and to lose their fear.”


Angela Foster at the Massachusetts state house for a ceremony accompanying the signing of a domestic workers’ bill of rights.
Angela Foster at the Massachusetts state house for a ceremony accompanying the signing of a domestic workers’ bill of rights.Credit Genesis Garcia

Juarez and Foster are among the emerging leaders at the forefront of a growing and perhaps pivotal rights movement: the effort to advance fair labor protections for domestic workers. This is, after all, a work force that arguably handles the most precious and least appreciated work in society: taking care of homes, parents, grandparents and children.

“We have a culture of not accounting for or recognizing the true value of caregiving,” says Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (N.D.W.A.), an organization that has played a leading role in recent years galvanizing, coordinating and supporting domestic workers’ rights campaigns around the country. “This work force has a special vulnerability,” Poo said. “They’re spread out among millions of unmarked homes. And they have a long history of exclusion from basic labor protections.”

Domestic workers have been denied equal work-force protections for close to 80 years. When the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act(F.L.S.A.) was passed, establishing a minimum wage and a maximum workweek at the federal level, two categories of workers were excluded from its protections: farm workers and domestic workers.

It was a concession to Southern lawmakers. “In the south, the majority of domestic workers and agricultural workers were African-Americans,” said Sheila Bapat, author of “Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights.” “Many were children of former slaves, some had been slaves themselves, and there was opposition to them receiving the same economic protections as white workers and being seen to be on the same economic footing.”

In the 1970s, Congress sought to amend the act to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic workers; however, it added an exemption for workers who provided in-home “companionship services” typically to elderly or disabled persons. The companion exemption has been interpreted so broadly that it still effectively excludes two-thirds of today’s home health care workers — most of whom do considerably more than offer company— from the law’s protections. In 2013, the Obama administration proposed changing the rule to extend the protections to close to two million home care workers, but home care industry groups sued and late last year a federal judge vacated the ruling. The decision, which is intensely political, is now under appeal.

The domestic workers’ struggle is intimately connected to many of the nation’s great continuing battles. A majority of domestic workers are minorities, nearly half are immigrants, and almost all are women. The status and treatment of domestic workers reflect attitudes toward racial inequities, immigration reform, the value of women’s work, the importance of care for children and people with disabilities, and, increasingly, the soaring demand for elder care

This huge business of people assisting people depends on a qualified and motivated work force willing to do work that many others depend on.

The work hinges on kindness and patience and dependability — even love — in addition to skill, which, paradoxically, may be why it is so undervalued. The big question: As a society, are we willing to offer a living wage and decent working conditions to people who do this work?

To date, New York, Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Connecticut have passed domestic workers’ bills of rights, and Illinois has introduced similar legislation. And the N.D.W.A. is helping affiliates advance the movement in numerous other states and Canadian provinces. “In today’s climate, labor organizing is so tough,” Bapat said. “But this is really an amazing labor rights story. The way in which they are revealing the value of domestic work is so innovative.”

How do you persuade policy makers and ordinary people to rethink longstanding assumptions about caregiving? How do you influence corporations whose current business models depend on large pools of low-wage caregivers? “The traditional models of organizing haven’t been an easy fit,” said Poo, who is also the author of “The Age of Dignity,” which explores solutions to the nation’s long-term care crisis. “This movement is made up of a lot of women of color who are invisible in our social strata. There’s no registry of domestic workers, no collective to bargain with, so we had to be creative in terms of how this work force can come into its own voice and power.”

“One thing that has been consistent is the power of story,” she added. “Just about everyone has connections to this work force. When we’re in meetings, we ask, ‘How many of you know someone who works as a domestic worker? Or were raised by a nanny, or have parents being taken care of?’ Once you start connecting the dots, pretty much everyone does. And it’s a deeply held personal connection.”

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In California, the campaign for a bill of rights drew on a coalition of organizations focusing on different issues, including labor, immigration, women’s rights and jobs. Groups documented stories and surveyed the needs of domestic workers, conducted leadership training sessions and storytelling workshops, and prepared domestic workers to speak to the media and to legislators. They organized rallies to allow people to show their support, with domestic workers marching alongside their employers and children holding signs saying “Support My Nanny” or “Support My Mom.”

“From 2011 to 2013, we went to Sacramento 15 or 20 times, sometimes bringing one or two domestic workers, sometimes bringing hundreds,” said Claudia Reyes, the domestic worker organizer for Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a Bay Area organization that helped lead the state’s coalition. “We did presentations and workshops with allies in schools, universities, churches, at the Legislature. What impressed me was the leadership of immigrant women.” The law was enacted in September 2013.

“This movement has transformed the way domestic workers see themselves,” said Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles. “Because of their leadership, children view their mothers and grandmothers differently.” She recalled being moved by a comment from a woman named Emily: “’Before I was ashamed to say I was a caregiver. But now when somebody asks me what I do, I’m proud to tell them.’”

In Massachusetts, the approach was similar. “It was a coming together of five organizations,” said Monique Nguyen, executive director of the Matahari Women Workers’ Center. “We organized a domestic workers convention in 2011 in Greater Boston to dream and brainstorm.” In Massachusetts, domestic workers already enjoyed the rights to a minimum wage and overtime pay, but they sought other protections, including the right to be paid for all working hours (wage theft is common), to have guaranteed days of rest, and to have maternity leave, even if unpaid. The Greater Boston Legal Services helped them translate their dreams into draft legislation and then they were connected to State Representative Michael J. Moran, whose mother had been a domestic worker, and who agreed to work on and co-sponsor the bill along with State Senator Anthony W. Petruccelli. Dozens of domestic workers testified at a hearing for the bill. It passed in June 2014.

Still, enforcement is a challenge. Because this work is so scattered and hidden, compliance will ultimately require the spread of new social norms and more creative business practices. To this end, the N.D.W.A. has introduced a series of initiatives, including an innovation arm called Fair Care Labs, which draws tech talent to develop new business ventures and works with companies to improve market norms in caregiving. One venture is a mobile app to help housekeepers exchange task lists in English or Spanish with employers. Another, Care Tango, is a business that matches caregivers and care seekers in the New York area.

And last month, at a conference organized by the Clinton Global Initiative, the N.D.W.A. introduced a “Fair Care Pledge” in partnership with Care.com, the largest online marketplace matching more than seven million care seekers with close to six million caregivers in the United States, and Hand in Hand, a network of employers of domestic workers. The pledge obliges employers to pay a fair wage, provide clear job expectations, and offer paid time off.

“It’s raising awareness among our members to take a moment to recognize that your home is somebody’s workplace,” said Donna Levin, co-founder and vice president of Care.com. Along with disseminating this call to action, the company provides tools and guides to help employers review current wage rates, determine a living wage in their area, create a contract, and understand their duties under the law. It also offers a payroll service, Homepay, which handles tax deductions and filings for any employer of domestic workers. “We made a commitment to have 25,000 of our members take the pledge this year,” Levin said.

“This is a profession that deserves recognition,” said Poo. “It’s not like the pipes and railways of old but it is nonetheless infrastructure. It is the work that makes all other work possible.”

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David Bornstein

David Bornstein is the author of “How to Change the World,” which has been published in 20 languages, and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is a co-founder of theSolutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

Correction: July 10, 2015
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the status of a Connecticut bill to adopt a domestic workers’ bill of rights. The legislation has passed and been signed into law. It is not still before the state Legislature.


MUA - Mujeres Unidas y Activas

MUA is a grassroots organization of Latina immigrant women with a dual mission of personal transformation and community power. Creating an environment of understanding and confidentiality, MUA empowers and educates our members through mutual support and training to be leaders in their own lives and in the community. Working with diverse allies, MUA promotes unity and civic-political participation to achieve social justice.

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