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)

From Connecticut to Oregon, women fight for domestic workers’ rights and power


Across the United States, women are organizing for domestic workers’ rights and power. According to the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, in the next week, the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights will hit the Illinois State Senate; the Connecticut Domestic Workers’ Bill will go to the Connecticut House of Representatives; and the Oregon Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights will arrive on the floor of the Oregon State House of Representatives. From sea to shining sea, domestic workers – maids, nannies, and home health care providers – are on the move and winning previously thought impossible battles. Women, overwhelming women of color and largely immigrant women, are transforming a subterranean network into an Overground Railroad of emancipation and enfranchisement. Connecticut, Illinois, and Oregon are stations on that system.

In so doing, women are re-writing history. While every labor victory rewrites history, these particular struggles involve not only State and Civil, or uncivil, Society disrespect and marginalization. They involve the words and texts of law. In Connecticut, for example, domestic workers’ struggle for dignity, rights, power, and better working conditions is aimed at re-writing the State definition of “employer.” Under Connecticut law, “employee” is defined as “any person employed by an employer but shall not include any individual employed by such individual’s parents, spouse or child; or in the domestic service of any person.” The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights eliminates the last clause: “or in the domestic service of any person.”

On Friday night, the Connecticut Senate passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Domestic workers – such as Natalicia Tracy, Iame Manucci, Maria Lima and Nina Siqueira – danced and shouted from the gallery, as the final vote was tallied. But they understand that this is the next step. Not only must the House of Representatives pass the Bill, but domestic workers must then militate further to be included in the State’s minimum wage law. That protection is not guaranteed under the Bill of Rights.

In Illinois and Oregon, it’s the same. Domestic workers are pushing to do much more thatn “come out of the shadows.” They have never been “shadow workers”. They have always been women workers on the move, and now the move has risen and expanded to the next stage.

The exclusion of domestic workers from labor law emerges from the explicitly racist foundations of slavery and Jim Crow. Domestic workers writing and promulgating Domestic Worker Bills of Rights participate in an ongoing Black and Brown Workers’ Liberation Movement. Within and beyond #BlackWomensLivesMatter and #SayHerName, domestic workers are pushing and expanding the terrain of emancipatory struggle. A luta continua! The struggle continues!

(Photo credit: Mark Pazniokas / Connecticut Mirror)

A time of challenge and opportunity for U.S. domestic workers

The past few months have been marked by both progress and setbacks for domestic workers in the United States, especially those who provide in-home care to seniors, people with disabilities and others in need. The developments have made it increasingly evident both that there is much work to do to generate the policy and cultural changes U.S. domestic workers need and deserve – and that now is the time to make it happen.

Home care is one of the United States’ fastest-growing and lowest-paying industries. More than 90 percent of U.S. home care workers are women, more than half are people of color, nearly a quarter are foreign born, and more than half rely on public assistance. The vast majority are also paid through public funds, primarily from Medicare and Medicaid. When combined with misguided views of women’s work and caregiving, these factors have long made the workforce especially susceptible to cutbacks and exploitation.

A major recent setback happened this June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that 26,000 Illinois home care workers are only “partial” public employees because they provide in-home care for private clients through a publicly funded state home care program. As a result, according to the ruling, these workers are no longer entitled to the same labor protections and union representation as other workers, specifically those who provide care outside of a private home.

The decision brings to light notions of both the home and the workplace that are routinely used to justify the devaluing of women’s labor: The home is not a workplace and, therefore, even basic labor protections do not apply to it or those who work within it. This is the same flawed rationale that resulted in home care workers being classified as “companions” and denied minimum wage and overtime protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1974. That classification isn’t supposed to change until next year.

Another setback came a few weeks ago. In what should have been a monumental victory for working families, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s second statewide paid sick days law, which will guarantee an additional 6.5 million workers the right to earn paid sick time. But, just before the bill passed, the governor negotiated an amendment to exclude one critical group from its protections: 400,000 workers who provide in-home care through the state’s publicly funded home care program.

Governor Brown’s actions may not surprise some. The first two times the state’s domestic workers’ bill of rights came across his desk, he vetoed it. He eventually signed the law – the nation’s third – in 2013. He also previously sought hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s home care program. This time, the governor cited cost as the reason to exclude home care workers from the new paid sick days law. Viability of that concern aside, there is simply no excuse for making cuts or special exceptions at the expense of the workers who can least afford it, and whose health and well-being have such a widespread impact.

So why did the governor of one of the more progressive states in the country do it? Because he can. Home care workers are still positioned as easy targets in the United States, and it is not unusual in the nation’s history (or globally) for women’s work to be undervalued and excluded from even the most basic protections. That is part of what makes the most recent potential setback so disappointing.

In 2013, in a major victory for domestic workers, the Obama administration announced official changes to the classification of home care workers under the FLSA that would extend minimum wage and overtime pay protections to two million home care workers. It also gave employers and states at least 15 months – until January 1, 2015 – to prepare. Now, some state and private home care industry officials are lobbying for more time. If they are successful, it will mean that the needs of home care workers will come last, yet again.

The good news is that workers, unions and advocates are pushing back, and there are reasons for U.S. domestic workers to be hopeful. Despite the Harris ruling, the union of home care workers most impacted by the decision says 10,000 workers have signed up. Just two months after the decision, thousands of Minnesota home care workers voted to unionize. And Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ of $625,000 to support organizing and policy advocacy efforts.

So, at a time like this, when there is a tremendous amount of great work happening to elevate and address the needs of U.S. domestic workers, the challenges and opportunities made clear in the last few months are a reminder that workers, advocates and organizers must remain vigilant. The United States cannot afford to take steps backward and further ingrain archaic and inexcusable understandings of domestic labor and women’s work, especially with such great progress on the horizon.

 

Update: On October 7, 2014, the U.S Department of Labor announced that the rule extending minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers will be implemented on January 1, 2015, as planned. However, it also announced that it will not enforce the changes for six months, followed by another six months during which enforcement will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Although the move does not technically delay implementation of the long overdue rule, it will mean that some U.S. home care workers will have to wait at least a year before receiving the pay protections they deserve.

 

(Photo Credit: Melody Gutierrez, The Chronicle)

Invisible and Isolated No More? Global Domestic Workers and the Age of ICT

CNN Money recently dubbed the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV domestic worker app one of “5 apps to help change the world” – calling apps “the newest tactic for tech-savvy activists.” The domestic worker app is part of an education project that began after New York passed the first domestic worker bill of rights in the United States in 2010, and it’s an exciting development to be sure. From providing information to answering common questions and collecting important data, it is certainly a useful tool for workers, organizers and researchers.

But where does the app and information and communications technology (ICT) like it fit within the broader – and global – effort to empower domestic workers and ensure the legal and cultural changes necessary to ensure this essential work is valued? Do tech-savvy tactics really have the potential to “change the world,” particularly when it comes to domestic work?

Numerous historical accounts, ethnographies and analyses of domestic workers worldwide have well documented that domestic workers are often made invisible through laws and state policies, through economic pressures that reduce them to exports, through the denial of their identities – both cultural or ethnic and human – and through employer control of their bodies. They are similarly isolated through legal barriers and the denial of full citizenship, but also through physical separation within communities, countries, and on a global scale. They often experience extreme social exclusion due to race, class, and employer-based control of information, mobility, and nearly every aspect of their lives.

On both of these fronts – invisibility and isolation – ICT seems to have great potential to expose the private sphere of domestic work, helping workers to identify each other and be made visible to governments, NGOs, the public and more. Imagine something as seemingly simple yet powerful as a crowdsourced map that tracks the presence of domestic workers and serves as a way for them to say “Here I am!” to other workers and/or their embassies. ICT could help to identify and track human rights and labor violations. Here again, a map of good and bad employers would be a powerful resource that could lead to legal action and increased accountability.

ICT also has the potential to reduce the isolation of domestic workers by breaking down barriers between them, their fellow workers, their families and their host countries through the creation of virtual networks. Collectives are often seen as a way to improve labor conditions, but why must spaces where people can meet and exchange views exist physically? Through ICT, people can connect and share experiences, find commonality and coordinate no matter where they are.

There is also inherent value and power in the sharing of information. For domestic workers, this could include news, knowledge of the world outside the home in which they work, relevant labor laws, wage rates, information on support groups, and other resources. The National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV app seems to do this well for workers in the United States, as new state-based protections have created the need for educational materials.

The app also gets at one of the more exciting aspects of ICT: the potential for new forms of organizing and resistance. Many scholars who have spent time with domestic workers emphasize that they already have the will to engage and mobilize to make changes in their lives. To the extent that mobile phones and ICT can make collective action, demonstrations or protests easier to coordinate, they would be – and already have been – transformative. The potential power of turning the virtual into the physical cannot be overstated.

Of course, there are significant barriers to the use of ICT for domestic workers. And that’s where advocates and researchers cannot fall into the trap of some ICT-based campaigns. With the rapid rise of mobile telephony and ICT, many scholars and development practitioners have sought ways of leveraging the technology to generate behavior and social change. “Mobile 4 development” (M4D) and “Information and Communication Technologies for Development” (ICT4D) campaigns range in focus from health to the environment, disaster relief, electoral participation, sanitation and financial services.

But as enthusiasm for these campaigns has grown, so has awareness of the fact that data on their effectiveness is sparse. Possible reasons for the mismatch between reality and high expectations include limited access to a technology among a specific population, a lack of knowledge about how a community uses it and/or problems with connectivity. It seems there is much work to do to better evaluate these efforts, bring them to scale and make them sustainable.

And this is why it’s worth emphasizing that the rush to conclude that ICT can change the world is worthy of careful consideration, especially when it comes to domestic work. The ability of ICT to transform the lives, laws and practices surrounding this exploited workforce rests almost entirely on workers’ access to mobile phones and other technology. And, in some countries and homes, that is no small hurdle. Domestic workers are routinely subject to strict employer control of nearly every aspect of their lives, including their mobility and the information and technology they can access.

So, ICT may not be the end-all-be-all when it comes to addressing the global mistreatment of domestic workers. But when used carefully and with an awareness of the community or country involved, it does have the potential to challenge the invisibility and isolation of an essential workforce. In the case of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Studio REV app, if the technology helps spread important information and creates a sense of community among domestic workers in the United States, it may not “change the world,” but it is a win for some – and an important learning opportunity for others.

 

(Image Credit: CNN Money)

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)

Seven billion. Who cares?

According to the United Nations, the world population reached 7 billion today. Ok, maybe it’s really tomorrow or the next day, maybe it was yesterday. The exact date is somewhat beside the point. The point is 7 billion. Maybe the child is a girl-child named Danica May Camacho, born today in the Philippines. Maybe the child is a girl-child named Nargis Kumar, born in India. The exact child is also somewhat beside the point, although the choice of gender for symbols is telling.

Seven billion is a big number, difficult to visualize. Of course, two centuries ago, when the population was a `mere’ 1 billion, that also was a big number, difficult to visualize. In 1930, when the population reached 2 billion, in 1960 when it reached 3 billion, in 1975 when it reached 4 billion, in 1987 when it reached 5 billion, in 1999 when it reached 6 billion, each time the number was a big number, difficult to visualize. That means in less than 40 years, the world population had doubled. Clearly, `we’ are not very good at numbers.

Some will tell you this is largely a story of India and China. Others will note that, of the continents, Africa has the fastest population growth. Of course, the whole of Africa has fewer people than either China or India, but it’s growing. Others will talk about inequality and resources. Geographic inequalities between people born, raised, living in different parts of the world. Inequalities between and among generations, between and among genders as well.

These are important issues to discuss. So is this. Who cares and who will care for the billions? Already, we know that the world population is growing older … quickly. Every state in the United States, has prepared a program to “Ride the Age Wave,” mostly by coining groaningly clever phrases and quandaries, such as “The Age Wave:  Silver Tsunami or Golden Wave of Opportunity?

Who will care for the growing global population of elders, the growing scattered populations of children, the growing population? Care workers. Child care providers. Elder care providers. Nannies. Maids. Housekeepers. Family members, more often than not unpaid. Women. Women of color. Women from “somewhere else.” And girls. Women and girls. Women and girls who are too often described as silent. Women and girls who are too often described as invisible. They aren’t silent, and they aren’t invisible. We’re simply not listening or seeing.

Care work is systematically dropped out of development programs and public policy debates. Care workers are systematically excluded from any consideration or consultation concerning … care. The ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers is a step towards correcting that situation. So are campaigns like the Caring Across Generations Campaign, launched by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and their allies, in the United States.

Another step would be global conversation. Try it. The next time someone says or writes, “The world population is …”, answer with a question. “Who cares?” And then, together, answer the question.

 

(Infographic Credit: NPR / UN Population Division)

Domestics: I am myself and my circumstances

I am a member of a women’s group called Woman, Action and Change. We are part of Tenants and Workers United of Northern Virginia. We are predominantly Latina immigrant and migrant women from all parts of Latin America. Our members include Mexicans, Dominicanas, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chileans, Argentines, many women from many countries. I am from Nicaragua. I have been living continuously in the United States for only 16 months.

When the group selected me to talk about domestic work, I was worried about how to approach a subject of which I am not an expert and then I remembered an expression of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher, who said: “I am myself and my circumstances” so I decided to approach it from my own experience.

I’m from Nicaragua. My mother came from a poor farming family. As a single mother she raised 5 children alone. My mother was an entrepreneur. She had a store and all of us had to work ever since we could remember. I grew up with the image of a strong, working woman, and in an environment where domestic work was part of an effort to sustain the family. I grew up working and studying, got married and, as my mother did, I took care of my home and my children as part of my duties to support and protect my family.

Antecedents

As we all know, in developing countries, domestic work has been used as a mechanism to preserve machismo. In most of these countries, girls are educated to manage the home and boys are educated to have jobs and participate in the greater world.

Under these conditions, domestic work is a form of subjugation of women because their principle duty is to look after the home. Often, women are exploited and in the case of working women, they work the equivalent of triple shifts in order to manage a career and take care of the home. This represents an obstacle to professional development because many women drop out of school to find jobs to solve the needs of their family. For Latin American women like me, completing household chores in addition to our career responsibilities is a source of identity and pride.

There are countries that have incorporated legislation for domestic workers and social security. In some cases this is an appeal by the ruling parties to provide a progressive image and appear concerned about this part of the electorate marginalized by all public health policies.

This is a way to hide the inability to create better jobs. However, the inclusion of the domestic worker in the social security system provides them with medical care benefits and pension rights.

Domestic work in the USA

In this country domestic work has become a job for immigrant women to allow them to survive and meet the needs of their family. Except for in the movies, where we see an elegant butler, well trained and educated for these tasks, this “profession” seems to be exclusively for poor immigrant women.

A little while ago, the National Domestic Workers Alliance convened in Washington, D.C. This organization deals with the work of humanizing domestic work. It has brought to the table an interesting proposal to give more substance to this career.

Estimates are that the Baby Boomer generation reached 13 million in 2000 and in 2050 will be 27 million. This will require over 3 million healthcare workers to take care of them as they gradually age, making geriatric care a moral imperative for this country. Thousands of people, who have built the economic success of this country, will enter old age alone and without help as a result of globalization and the global economic crisis.

We have heard a lot about the budget cuts to social services in the media and the only proposals for jobs seem to focus on technology. In my opinion, there is no effort being made to support real people living in this country today. This is very irresponsible. Domestic workers can help resolve major societal issues through the care of the elderly, disabled and young members of our community. In the long run, this is much more important for building our quality of life because each of us will eventually be old and need help, too.

Today anti-immigrants accuse immigrants of taking jobs from Americans. I don’t think anyone is taking anything from anybody. The jobs filled by immigrant women, in particular, are low-wage domestic workers. These women work in horrid conditions for the chance to feed their families.

It is important that we discuss the legislative opportunities available to improve working conditions and educational opportunities for domestic workers. Improvements in those areas are connected to the outcomes and improvements in the care and wellbeing of our health, for the elderly, disabled and children. By supporting the development of women we will make our society stronger.

 

(Photo Credit: D.C. Intersections / Kate Musselwhite)