Care Workers Demand Federal Support as First Responders in Climate Crises
Published on September 2, 2021 in Yes! Magazine
Domestic care workers have been overlooked in the economy and as political actors for too long.
When Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida in October 2018, June Barrett, a Black Jamaican home care worker, rushed to take care of their elderly patients in Miami. Barrett, had worked as a care worker for two decades, and knew that the safety of their patients was in their hands. “The generator broke down, and we stayed up all night making sure our clients were safe.”
Barrett is also a grassroots leader at We Dream in Black, a project of National Domestic Workers Alliance and the political home of Black domestic workers in the U.S., and the Miami Workers Center. “When hurricanes hit, we leave our homes and families behind and are asked to shelter in place with our clients,” Barrett says. “Home care workers are often the first responders in a climate emergency, and yet, we rarely get the recognition or resources we deserve for our labor and efforts. As we experienced this past year with COVID, it is care workers who hold up the economy in a crisis.”
Invisible Drivers of the Care Economy
Nearly 2.3 million home care workers provide lifesaving personal assistance and health care support to the elderly and people with disabilities. This indispensable and often invisible labor is powered overwhelmingly by immigrant women of color—Black, Latinx and Asian—who struggle to make a dignified living wage, some making as little as $7 per hour. As a result, almost 1 in 5 care workers live in poverty.
Alma Santana empathizes with the angst of millions of America’s workers. As a Mexican domestic worker living in California, Santana has experienced the multiple crises facing many of the workers in the U.S.: immigration and gender vulnerabilities, racism, and economic inequities. Santana is a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a Latina immigrant women-led grassroots group with a mission for personal transformation and building community power for gender and economic justice.
“As a domestic worker, I have not been given the respect or the care I have shown to my employers,” Santana says. “I have taken care of your children, elders, and homes, and it’s now time to fight for my rights.”
Santana is among thousands of domestic and care workers in California who have worked through raging wildfires and smoke, commuting long distances, often without adequate public transit access during disasters. “In California with all the wildfires, I am seeing my colleagues struggle with asthma. We risk our lives with lung infections due to all the smoke and ash,” she says.
On July 13, Santana and Barrett joined a delegation of care and domestic workers in Washington, D.C., for the “Care is Essential” national day of action, demanding Congress recognize what they believe to be an indisputable fact: care workers are on the front line of crises caused by climate change. “Together we are sending a message that care is essential work, and bold investments from Congress will make us all resilient in the face of climate change, which is here to stay,” Barrett says.
Care Jobs are Green Jobs
“Put some respect on our checks!” care workers chanted at the march in Washington. This national action was organized by the Service Employees International Union and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who believe that home care jobs are central to a healthy future for all.
Margaret Kwateng, the National Green New Deal Organizer atGrassroots Global Justice Alliance, emphasizes that care jobs are green jobs. “Care jobs are local jobs with a small carbon footprint, like home health care and child care,” she says. “Investing in these jobs supports thousands of families and provides opportunities for workers transitioning out of fossil fuel industries to more equitably access jobs in the green economy.”
Kwateng also underscores that the movement of care workers is led by Black, Latinx, and Asian and Pacific Islander women workers, who have visionary solutions for people and the planet. “We must create a culture of collective care for our workers as well,” she says. “Building a healthy economy includes visibilizing and investing in women workers who play such a critical role in the well-being and stability of all our families and communities.”
Rewriting the Future of America
This feminist movement of care workers has won the hearts of some congressional leaders who are exhorting Congress to invest boldly on climate and green jobs. U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, gave a fiery speech on July 20 at a “Go Bigger on Climate, Care, and Justice” event, in support of big investments for care, climate, and jobs at a rally organized by the Green New Deal Network. Jayapal passionately advocated for strengthening the care economy and investing in Medicaid, home, and community-based services. “It means creating home care jobs. It means establishing paid leave and making child care universal. That is the care economy that we need to invest in. … This is the beginning of a fight to rewrite the future of America,” she said. Jayapal also noted that it’s time for “corporations and the ultra-rich to pay their fair share” of taxes.
“Even though we are essential, we don’t have dignified jobs, and we are struggling financially,” Martha Herrera, a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas said at the July 13 domestic workers’ action in D.C. “I am demanding protection for my health and the health of my community as we face climate disasters. We can’t keep risking the lives of workers.” As Republicans launched concerted attacks for budget cuts in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the last resort for meaningful investments for climate, care, and green jobs now remains in a unique process called budget reconciliation. It’s now a race against time for care workers and Green New Deal Network members, like Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and the Indigenous Environmental Network, who are demanding passage of the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill, including $400 billion set aside for the care economy.
In late August, there was a glimmer of hope: House Democrats passed the budget resolution bill, ending a stalemate between House Speaker Pelosi and centrists in her own party. Now that the House and Senate Democrats have both passed their resolutions, Congress must quickly draft and pass the full budget reconciliation bill.
After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in August released a damning report citing human activity as being responsible for the unprecedented rate of climate change, many front-line groups expressed disappointment that their alarms were ignored for years. “For front-line communities, our care workers and Indigenous communities, facing generations of environmental and climate injustice, we and our loved ones have been living with climate disaster,” says Adrien Salazar, policy director of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. “We know firsthand that the climate crisis is here and accelerating.” Salazar believes this Congressional budget could be historic. “This budget package that Congress is negotiating comes at a critical crossroads. This could be a transformative investment in climate solutions, the care economy, and racial justice. We have the opportunity to take a big step towards shifting our economy away from extraction and suffering, towards stewardship and care, and build a society in which we all thrive.”