At least 800,000 women go to work in other people’s homes each day in the United States, serving as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for our elders and loved ones with disabilities. By caring for children and offering the aging both emotional support and assistance with the basic activities of daily life, they enable the recipients of their care to lead full and dignified lives. And by taking care of others’ families and homes, these women make it possible for their employers to go to work every day. If domestic workers went on strike, they could paralyze almost every industry. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, small business owners, civil sector employees, and media executives would all be affected. The entire economy would tremble.
These are also the workers who are most consistently in contact with the most vulnerable clients of our health care system, who substantially cut healthcare costs by keeping people in their homes and communities and out of radically more expensive institutions. During natural disasters, caregivers are unsung heroes, often choosing to stay with their clients and see them through to safety, even when it means not going home to look after their own families.
Yet in return for the emotionally and physically arduous, life-sustaining services they provide, care workers earn, on average, less than $10 per hour. They are not eligible for overtime compensation, and few receive paid vacation or sick days, despite the high rate of injury and burnout associated with care work. Most are subject to termination without notice and without severance pay.
Domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the right to organize and collectively bargain through the National Labor Relations Act. But even if they were included, the dynamics of their employment make it difficult, if not impossible, to engage in collective bargaining in the traditional sense. Domestic workers labor in private homes that function as separate workplaces; there is neither a collective workforce nor is there usually a central employer with whom to bargain. When individual workers try to bargain with their employers, termination is a common result, since employers can simply hire another worker. Because this work has historically been associated with the unpaid work of women in the home or with the poorly paid work of women of color and immigrant women, it remains undervalued in public consciousness.
To relegate the issues of domestics and care workers to the terrain of “immigrant issues,” or even the broader categories of women’s issues or workers’ rights, however, is to miss a tremendous opportunity. Any single lens offers blindered, shortsighted vision, when what we need now for real progress is a long and expansive view. In my work, care has emerged as the connective tissue to encompass all identities and enable us to transcend to the level of values, ethics, even spirituality. We must become a nation that values care—a caring America.
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