Elder Care Workers in the United States Are Fighting for Justice

The aging of the largest generation in the United States, the Baby Boomers, is creating a desperate shortage for care workers for elders. By 2024, upstate New York will need 451,000 home health workers in 2024; currently the state employs 326,000. Already, the shortage is problematic for New York. For example, Rebecca Leahy of North Country Home Services reports that, every week, it is unable to provide a staggering 400 hours of homecare services which have been authorized by the state. Leahy explains, “My fear is that in the near future most patients in the three Adirondacks counties of Franklin, Essex, and Clinton could be without services because the sole provider for most of this region will not be able to cover payroll.” That would leave thousands of elders without the physical and emotional urgent care that they need.

The current trend, pushing us into a critical shortage of homecare workers, has been caused by the lack of well-paying jobs in the elder health-care industry. That lack creates a pool of continually underemployed workers. Upstate New York, and most of the country, consistently employs workers at wages and conditions that keep them in poverty, causing a high turnover rate of workers in a health industry that needs stability. Currently, the number of people in the United States over the age of 65 is expected to double. With the urgent and pervasive need for personal-care aids and home healthcare workers, employers and the state should provide jobs that give aids decent wages and benefits, including paid time off and health insurance.

Those benefits have not been procured by employees. Ai-jen Poo, Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has highlighted the extreme precariousness and vulnerability in elder care workers. With an industry where 90% of workers are women, the majority women of color and 30-40% immigrants, the conditions are impossible, ‘The average income for home care-workers is $17,000 a year. The median income for an elder care-worker…is $13,000.” Additionally, according to Poo, because they are characterized as domestic workers, elder care workers don’t qualify for work protections such as “limits on hours and overtime pay, days off, health benefits and paid leave.” Workers are completely dedicated to the patient who needs care, but are unable to receive the benefits and pay they deserve, many taking care of our families and loved ones.

Nearly 75% of nursing home care and home health care is paid for through Medicaid and Medicare, where the reimbursement rate has stagnated for several years. With the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back expansions granted under the Affordable Care Act, those reimbursements are unlikely to increase any time soon.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is one of the leading organizations in the United States working for the inclusion of domestic workers, which include elder care employees, into the Fair Labor Standards Act which guarantees workers a federal minimum wage, overtime, sick, and vacation pay.

Caring Across Generations is a coalition of more than 100 local, state, and national organizations, working towards a policy agenda which includes, “access to quality care, affordable home care for families and individuals, and better care jobs.” The organization lists four major proposals to help address the underemployment of homecare workers and the growing need for elder care services:

  1. Increase the national minimum wage floor for domestic workers to $15.00 per hour.
  2. Improve workforce training and career mobility to ensure quality.
  3. Develop a path to citizenships for undocumented caregivers.
  4. Create a national initiative to incentivize and recruit family caregivers into the paid workforce, since nearly 85% of long term care is provided by family members.

According to Ai-jen Poo, domestic workers, including elder care workers, “need fair wages, decent working conditions and access to reproductive health care, including abortions”. It seems a simple request, considering these workers provide physical, mental and emotional care for our elderly family members while sacrificing their time with their own families. Given the emerging crisis, the time to help these workers is now!

 

(Photo Credit: Caring Across Generations)

Domestic Workers’ Rights: An Increasingly Relevant Transnational Issue

California Governor Brown’s recent veto of the Domestic Workers‘ Bill of Rights (AB889) has given several domestic workers‘ groups a platform on which to raise awareness about and discuss the significance of equal rights for and, even more, valuation of domestic workers. Unfortunately, this is the only positive outlook on Brown’s veto.

According to a member of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, “more than just protecting meal breaks, the workers had hoped the bill would signal a fundamental shift in the way society regards their work.” Domestic workers, most of whom also need to provide and take care of their own families, deserve to both feel and actually be legitimate in regards to their job security and self-representation while on the job.

By referring to domestic workers as “companions” to the elderly and disabled, it evokes a responsibility of love and devotion to their employers – one that is too easily manipulated and exploited by the state (in this case, Gov. Brown specifically) who believes it would be dangerous for the elderly and disabled to regulate domestic work.

However, this seems like it would be a very workable issue once domestic workers are recognized under the basic protection of job rights. In fact, the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Ai-jen Poo, says that “it was clear [they] would work through [the state’s questions] during the regulatory process [after the bill was signed].” One foreseeable solution could be the implementation and regulation of shifts by domestic worker unions. This would hopefully allow the workers to receive eight hours of daily and fairly paid work.

Without saying it, it appears that another concern of Governor Brown’s is the immigration status of these California domestic workers. As a US citizen myself, I am less concerned with this aspect of the issue. Since these domestic workers are worthy enough to take care of other people’s children, grandparents, houses, etc., this should earn them the right to visibility in regards to both the law and society.

Zoë Waltz, zo_waltz@yahoo.com

Domestics: Governor Brown’s veto of California’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights


Last week, Governor Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a three-year grassroots campaign, blaming “increased costs” and increased “burden onto working class families.” Among other basic worker protections, the bill called for overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, and adequate sleeping conditions for live-in domestic workers. For domestic workers in California, where over 90% do not receive overtime pay and many cite issues of sexual harassment and violence on the job, Brown’s decision to prioritize working-class families illustrates a continued disregard for domestic workers as not “really” workers and a continued commitment to the status quo.

In his statement last week announcing the vetoed legislation, Governor Brown called domestic work “a noble endeavor” which deserves fair pay and safe working conditions. Domestic work is indeed a noble endeavor, but in measuring silences we can effectively unpack Governor Brown’s words. Calling domestic work an “endeavor” suggests that the work of caring and maintaining the home is less of a job but more of a service. It is “noble,” because though no one wants to do it, it still must be done. All in all, as the doers of “a noble endeavor,” domestic workers are not real contributors to capital. By calling their work “noble endeavors,” Brown makes the domestic work visible in recognizing its importance; however, Brown’s subsequent veto of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights keeps the domestic workers invisible in failing to recognize domestic work as a “profession” which deserves the same respect and protections found in other jobs.

Furthermore by taking the side of working-class families who “are struggling, I’m sure, to already afford a nanny,” Brown avoids the bigger issue of class production. Both the production of middle class success and the reproduction of the middle class status rely on the burdening of domestic workers. In other words, the middle class cannot survive without the hiring of domestic workers to reaffirm middle class status. At the end, a veto of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights is really a commitment to prioritize middle class comforts over the domestic workers’ basic rights. Brown’s ultimate decision to avoid burdening the middle class is a decision to continue burdening domestic workers in order to distinguish class.

Governor Brown also cites the possibility that increased rights for domestic workers could result in job cuts. Brown raises potentially negative consequences to justify his veto rather than working through these issues later, as Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance maintains: “it was clear we would work through those questions during the regulatory process.” Essentially, Brown’s veto put an end to possible negotiations and other ways to look at the issue. As Kathi Weeks recommends, we must be careful of knowing “too much too soon” and continue to imagine other possibilities and different ways to live. Another household is possible.

(Photo Credit: San Francisco Foundation)

Remember and recognize Alem Dechasa-Desisa and her sisters

 

Ethiopian women hold a mass in memory of Alem Dechasa in Beirut, March 21, 2012

March 30 is International Domestic Workers’ Day. Around the world domestic workers, overwhelmingly women, work to clean households, cook, mend, care for children, for elders, for the sick, for those with disabilities. Around the world, domestic workers, millions upon millions of women and girls, travel to or wake up in other peoples’ homes and take care of their employers’ emotional well-being. Around the world, domestic workers organize and struggle with denial of payment, denial of social security, unpaid extended workdays, mistreatment, exploitation, abuse. So, when Ai-Jen Poo, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, wishes her sisters happy international domestic workers’ day, the wish is as aspirational as it is of the present moment. It’s as hopeful as it is courageous.

Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s life story demonstrates that all too well. On March 8, a video started circulating. The video showed a young Ethiopian woman, presumed to be a domestic worker, pleading for help outside the Ethiopian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. A car pulls out. Men jump out, attack the young woman, kick her, knock her to the ground, and worse, and then force her into the car and disappear. All this was caught on video and then shown on Lebanese television news.

Later it was reported that the young woman was indeed an Ethiopian domestic worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, 33 years old. She was from Addis. She was the mother of two children. She arrived in Beirut in December 2011, less than three months earlier.

Dechasa-Desisa was suffering. According to her employer, she was suffering a nervous breakdown. Many in Lebanon doubt that was the case. Her employer dumped her at the Embassy, who did nothing. Worse, the Embassy told the employer to take Dechasa-Desisa to a mental health hospital. Take her anywhere. Take her away.

When the police found the young Ethiopian woman, they took her to the immigrant detention center, with the intention of deporting her. She cried so much she was taken … to a mental health hospital. Two days later, she was dead, by hanging. Suicide. Structural homicide. Alem Dechasa-Desisa was dead.

The video shocked Lebanon. The video shocked Ethiopia as well. The death of Alem Dechasa-Desisa disturbed Europe as well, and received some mention in the United States. But what exactly is the shock, the scandal?

The abuse of domestic workers is systemic. The abuse of transnational, migrant workers is, if possible, even more systemic. This new form of a very old situation is intensified by nationalism, racism, sexism. It is also intensified by the structurally induced greater vulnerability of the transnational migrant domestic worker. More often than not, she is a live-in worker. Her `home’ is her employer’s home. Live-in for a transnational migrant worker means more than being on-call 24 hours a day, although that would be bad enough. It means the worker is homeless. If she’s kicked out … there’s no place to go. If she leaves, there’s no place to go. Her very being on the street becomes a criminal act.

All domestic workers struggle with exploitation and abuse. All domestic worker struggle with the absence of any real possible response to exploitation and abuse, other than personal resistance. They know that no State will aid them. Quite to the contrary.

For transnational domestic workers, it’s worse.

The vulnerability of the transnational domestic worker is intensified by the reliance of the home country on the money earned and sent home by the workers who have traveled to richer countries. The home countries also rely, heavily, on the absence of those workers, the reducing of pressures to employ them. The home country needs its workers in other countries and it needs them `to behave’.

The Ethiopian Embassy responded to Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s pleas. It closed its doors.

Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s story is the story of young women on the move, around the world. Hers is the story of modern labor, young women workers struggling to make a living. Without strong unions, women domestic workers are left to their own devices. Without strong unions, women domestic workers’ stories only come to the surface when someone is abused in public and caught on video. Without strong unions, women domestic workers’ lives are defined, by the public, by `suicide.’

Women domestic workers define their own lives differently. Hard work. Advancement. Struggle. Shared laughter and tears.

Yesterday, Friday, March 30, 2012, was International Domestic Workers’ Day. Remember and recognize Alem Dechasa-Desisa and her sisters. Honor them as builders, as the women who have built the everyday lives of the entire planet, and support their organizing efforts. Happy International Domestic Workers’ World!

 

(Photo Credit: Daily Star)