Symposium | Can Women Save America?

Domestic Workers: Building Political Power in the COVID Era

By Ai-jen Poo

Tagged equalitysexismWomenworkers

Twelve years ago, together with 50 domestic workers and organizers from around the country, I co-founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), to achieve dignity and respect for the 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States that our society and economy rely on. Domestic workers are the nannies, home-care workers, and caregivers who do the work every day that makes all other work possible—caring for our children, loved ones who are elderly or disabled, and our homes. Our goal was to bring together the power of the local domestic worker organizations to create a national force and voice for change for all domestic workers, nationwide.

When I began working with domestic workers, the problems were obvious, and the challenges immense. But the solutions seemed clear. Domestic workers needed equal protections and full inclusion in our laws and culture, in order to be treated with dignity and respect. They needed to be included in workplace rights legislation, rather than excluded, as they have been for reasons that will be discussed later in this article. And they needed to be visible, drawing their work out of the shadows and creating discourse around the value—and historical exclusion—of domestic workers. So, NDWA’s flagship initiative was clear: win and replicate the campaign already underway for a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights for the State of New York, which included provisions such as overtime pay, a rest day every seven days, a minimum of three days paid leave every year, and protection from discrimination and harassment. The bill was introduced in 2004 and after six years of organizing, it was enacted on November 29, 2010. This success was followed by successful campaigns in eight other states: Massachusetts, Nevada, Hawaii, Oregon, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, and California.

But in recent years, there has been a shift in our activism, and an evolution in how we understand what winning means. This now includes how we rise to the moment of the coronavirus crisis.

Our approach of trying to gain inclusion through changing state labor laws was an obvious strategy; domestic workers need worker rights and protections, and an existing legislative framework exists. But over the past decade of organizing we have come to realize that we can’t be limited to old frameworks. When an existing system has been built upon a hierarchy that devalues and excludes our very constituency, we must reimagine both those frameworks, and the strategies we have pursued to achieve our aims. Rather than working for inclusion within a system that has structurally denied us equal value and dignity, we need to create new systems, cultural norms and narratives that reflect the true value of care and the workers who provide it.

The COVID-19 crisis has pulled the curtain back on just how much our society and economy rely on the very workers who are protected the least, and they are disproportionately women. As our economy has been stripped back to the bare necessities, we’ve realized how essential so many workers are: grocery store workers, service workers, care workers, among many others. The workers we most need to show up are the workers with the least access to a safety net, job security, or to paid time off to isolate if they need to. They are the first to lose work and the last to be rehired. Two thirds of all minimum wage workers are women, disproportionately concentrated in low-wage service jobs where they live paycheck to paycheck. These women are the essential workers who are holding our nation together through this crisis, while simultaneously struggling to care for their own families.

In other words, among the heroes of this coronavirus crisis are very much our domestic workers. They are the workers who keep older people safe and comfortable in their homes, and the childcare providers who are caring for other essential workers in hospitals and in government. They are the cleaners who sanitize hospitals and offices so that others can work in them safely. Suddenly, the values underlying the economic system that normally renders invisible those we need most are in clear view, creating an opening to rethink the system itself.

Our activism at the National Domestic Workers Alliance has changed. We are no longer working to gain inclusion in old, outdated labor laws and structures, designed to fail us. We are working to create a whole new paradigm of economic value and assumptions, and to reinvent caregiving systems and the role of the care economy itself, so that our economic future is one that sustains and works for all of us.

The Dynamics of Domestic Work

Obilia has been cleaning homes in New Jersey for 15 years, and while she has had some good work experiences, much of her early domestic work experience was traumatic. She began working as a housecleaner when she was new to the United States, and she didn’t know what rights she had as a domestic worker, if any. When she faced abuse from an employer, she would simply, as she put it, “take it.” One employer paid her just $80 a day to clean seven to eight houses each day. One day, when she was “taking too long” to finish cleaning a room, he threatened to call the police. When she replied that he should go ahead and call them if he felt he needed to, he responded with, “Don’t you want this job? You need to work harder to keep this job.” He eventually fired her when she wasn’t outside waiting for him as he arrived to pick her and a colleague up to take them to the next house to clean. When she got in the car he lost his temper and left her in an alley by a Domino’s Pizza.

Never again should domestic workers have to choose between going to work in a pandemic or putting food on the table.

Unfortunately, Obilia’s story is not uncommon. There are almost 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States. They are underpaid and overworked, and were excluded from the worker rights and protections legislated in the 1930s, which included the right to a minimum wage, the right to overtime, and the right to a safe workplace. They rarely have access to benefits such as paid sick days, and domestic workers too often must choose between taking care of their own child when they are sick or being able to put food on the table. They work in the shadows of the economy, and many live in the margins of society. The domestic workforce is more than 90 percent women, and disproportionately women of color and immigrants.

Compounding the historical and cultural issues effecting the respect and dignity of domestic work are the practical challenges to affecting change for domestic workers. The domestic workforce is disaggregated: Every home could be a workplace, and most employers have a 1:1 relationship with the domestic worker in their home. Rather than traditional strategies to organize workers focused on targeting employers with large workforces, NDWA employed on-the-ground canvassing to find workers, like the strategies used by Dorothy Bolden, the founder of the National Domestic Workers Union, who organized domestic workers riding the bus to and from work in Atlanta. Additionally, many employers don’t even see themselves as employers. Because they see the work as informal and don’t think of the private home as a workplace, there are no workplace agreements. The blurred line between home and workplace has also led to high degrees of vulnerability to harassment and even to sexual assault.

These workplace conditions are the product of social and economic systems hundreds of years old, that rely on a model of power that is zero sum. The framework that we inherited was one where a quality of life for employers necessitated the exploitation and vulnerability of workers. And one where in order for workers to win, employers had to lose. Improving the wages of domestic workers always meant harming the ability of families to afford the care they need. And power gained must be power taken from someone else; women’s work and care work were excluded or devalued in the economy so that economic gain could be generated elsewhere. The fight for true equality and the rights of domestic workers has always been hampered by paradigms that assume hierarchy and scarcity. Events over the last few years have revealed the fragility of this system and created an opportunity to lay a new foundation, for a more caring and equitable future for all of us. But it would require women organizing together, for a new set of solutions, and in a new way.

Women Modeling a New Way

In 2017, I attended the Women’s March on Washington, along with almost half a million other protestors. We were intergenerational: young mothers, children, and babies, as well as grandmothers who had been protesting for decades. We were a multi-racial, cross-class group: Americans of every background and culture, speaking many languages, working in every sector of the economy, but connected by the singular goal of fighting back against the myriad ways that women are disempowered.

We lifted up every issue under the sun, from health care to child care, from reproductive rights to immigrant rights, from mass incarceration to climate change. Women care about many issues, and in the moment, we realized there was room for all of our priorities and concerns. We strengthened our impact by embracing them all. Domestic workers linked arms with artists, students, and women with disabilities. We knew that for any of us to be heard, we all have to be heard, for any of us to be seen, we all have to be seen, and for any of us to be safe in the world, we all have to be safe in the world.

Most of us were accustomed to fighting for equality or inclusion in a system designed by and for men. This moment felt like a turning point, where our collective power—and our political potential—was expressed differently. Linking women’s activism across race, class, and age has particular stakes for domestic workers. Previous generations of women entered the workplace because another class of women took on the care and cleaning work in their homes.

Through that process, we never managed to change the way we value women’s work in general and domestic work in particular. The division and inequality between men and women was further extended to division and inequality between white women and women of color, or citizens and immigrants, or documented and undocumented people. While some women found more opportunity in the workplace, entering into new fields of work that had historically been dominated by men, and even achieving new positions of leadership and power, the realm of care and domestic work that had always been associated with women still lacked fundamental recognition and respect. The realm of responsibility for the household and family still fell on women. As women today realize that true equality will require all of us, we see this moment of women’s activism as one to revalue and lift up all of our experiences, especially those we ignored in the past.

Building political power for women has often been focused on creating room for women on the political stage. But the truth is that together, women have the raw political power we need. In the United States women are the majority—165 million women compared to 159 million men—and we have been the majority of voters in every national election since 1964. In April 2019, Cecile Richards, Alicia Garza, and I co-founded Supermajority, an organization aimed at transforming our country by building an intergenerational, multiracial movement for true equality. Supermajority believes that women’s equity and equality are essential to the economic, political, and social progress of our country. In 2018 women voters helped elect a record-breaking 127 women to Congress. Women are the most powerful political force in the United States. On one level, we have the power we need as women. The question is how and toward what change we harness it. This is how women’s activism can strengthen our democracy for the next period in history.

A New Paradigm for Work and Care

To create a truly resilient, strong care economy, we need a system that will serve both families and the care workforce. We need to reimagine care for everyone, including for the families who employ domestic workers. In our work over the years, we encountered many women who employed domestic workers, who would testify at hearings about how they could never have managed without their nannies or their house cleaners. Daughters who believed the home care worker who cared for their mother with dementia was the most important member of the family, at a critical time in their family story. Even those who supported rights for their domestic workers and desperately wanted to do right by the domestic workers in their lives struggled with a fundamental question: If I’m doing my best and it’s not enough, what do I do?

Family caregivers, who have traditionally been the women of the family, have also borne the work of caring for family members without support, and at a heavy cost. Women caregivers spend an average of 39 hours per week caregiving, and for 54 percent of women caregivers, this is on top of a fulltime job.

Perhaps at no time has this been more evident than during the coronavirus crisis. With schools closed across the nation, nursing homes evacuated, and those at high risk for COVID-19 being advised to self-isolate, we suddenly felt the impact of a society without the care infrastructure we need. Parents have struggled to juggle working from home with homeschooling and childcare. Adult children have struggled to manage the needs of their elderly parents who were unable or unwilling to stay in nursing homes, and the care needs of our families and homes piled on top of our responsibilities to our jobs outside the home.

Historically, in the zero-sum model, the interests of families and workers have been pitted against each other. Lowering costs for families necessitates depressing wages for workers. Raising wages for workers means cutting services for families. We believe there’s another way. Caring Across Generations and NDWA have been developing a proposal in response to the quietly growing care crisis, called Universal Family Care, a public, family care insurance fund that will ensure that every family has access to affordable care for their family members when they need it. It’s simple: Like Social Security, everyone would pay into the fund, and when a family needs care they would have access to services ranging from childcare and eldercare to support for people living with disabilities and paid leave. Universal Family Care would build on top of and expand existing public programs, ensuring a broader range of benefits including respite and support for family caregivers and the ability to access support from professional care workers who earn a living wage.

Through Caring Across Generations, we have been organizing family caregivers, workers, and consumers of care in one movement to win the new solutions we need. This growing movement, led by women, is engaging elected officials, candidates for office, and leaders across sectors who are beginning to hear the call to action from families, who also happen to be voters. States are beginning to lead on solutions; in Hawaii, they created the Kupuna Caregivers Program to provide a benefit to working family caregivers who are caring for their loved ones at home. In Washington, the legislature passed the Long-term Care Trust Act, the nation’s first social insurance fund for long-term care in the country. Across local, state, and national government, there’s an increasing awareness that we need to update our systems with real investments in family care for workers. This progress is hopeful, but it’s not enough.

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that we must create and fight for much bolder solutions, like universal support for family care across the life-span: from child care to paid family leave and long-term care, where the initial assumption is that care is essential, and we should all be able to care for our families as we work. The outdated framework we have relied on for care has long failed us. It relies upon the exploitation of immigrants and women of color. It takes advantage of overstretched family caregivers, who are working and caring while on the brink of collapse. It requires domestic workers to have little to no worker rights or access to a safety net. This framework didn’t just fail the workers in our care economy, it failed all of us, and our activism must recognize that.

As the nation begins to imagine what it looks like to recover from this pandemic, we have the opportunity to not only reimagine, but put into place a new paradigm that truly values “women’s work,” where caregiving is appreciated as a critical role undertaken both by care professionals and by family caregivers. Never again should domestic workers have to choose between going to work in the midst of a global pandemic or putting food on the table for their own families. Never again should a family struggling to care for a sick or elderly relative have to underpay a domestic work to provide such care.

In this era of unprecedented inequality and global pandemics, women’s activism must seek more than inclusion or status in the context of a system designed by and for men. Our activism has always been at the heart of what makes American democracy work. We must now take responsibility for charting a new way forward. As women who are the majority, the supermajority even, we must move beyond frameworks for activism rooted in competition and scarcity and fundamentally challenge the hierarchies of human value that have shaped our world. While there’s no blueprint, striving to recognize the inherent value and worth of all work and the people who do it is a powerful beginning.

From the Symposium

Can Women Save America?

See All

Read more about equalitysexismWomenworkers

Ai-jen Poo is the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus