News From The Field

This Labor Day, Let’s Celebrate Domestic Workers

03 September 2012
BY Ai-Jen Poo

Last Wednesday, just in time for Labor Day, the California state legislature passed the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. This legislation, inspired by a similar measure passed in New York State in 2010, provides basic workplace protections such as overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, and uninterrupted sleep time for the state’s growing domestic workforce. Now awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature, the bill points to a deep change in the nature of work in America.

Over the past several decades, more and more women have started to work outside of their own homes. In fact, women became the majority of the workforce in the United States in 2010. While in the past, women provided unpaid labor in the home to care for their families, the demands of their paid jobs make that labor increasingly untenable.

Ai-Jen Poo rallies with members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance

Enter domestic workers, whom many women hire to clean their homes, raise their children and care for their aging parents. These domestic workers – most of whom are immigrant women – now perform the intimate labor of caring for hundreds of thousands of families across the nation. And as the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement and advances in medicine are prolonging all of our lives, the need for in-home caregivers is on the rise. In fact, the in-home care workforce is among the fastest growing workforces in the nation.

But as important as their labor is, domestic workers are extremely vulnerable in the workplace: isolated in private homes, working long hours often for poverty wages and more often than not without access to basic benefits such as paid sick days or health insurance. Take Thelma Reta, for example, who works as a caregiver in Los Angeles, and who for years earned as little as $35 per day for around the clock care of an elderly couple.

Reta is not the exception. Challenging conditions like hers are common, an expression of the age-old societal devaluation of women’s work in the home; and they’re bolstered by the explicit exclusion of domestic workers from many of the basic rights and protections provided to workers in this country by laws such as the National Labor Relations Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Domestic worker organizations have emerged in cities around the country to address these conditions and to bring value to the labor of care. In June 2007 they founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance to give voice to the experiences of the workforce and to promote the establishment of rights. The alliance was central to the ratification of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010 – groundbreaking legislation that established overtime pay, a day of rest, paid leave, and protection from discrimination and harassment for domestic workers. It also raised awareness of the plight of domestic workers and created a legislative precedent that is now spreading around the country, beginning with California last week.

These Bills of Rights do more than simply reverse a legacy of discrimination in the law. They are also a call to redefine the labor of care and the work of all women, in the home and in the workplace. Comedian and actor, Amy Poehler, in a recent public service announcement in support of the California legislation put it best, “Every day so many working women get to do what they do because there are wonderful people in their home helping them.” As candidates and lawmakers around the country debate the future of jobs and the economy, they should see that New York and California are on to something.

This post was written by Ai-Jen Poo. Ai-jen is the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Co-Director of Caring Across Generations. She has been an advocate for the rights of immigrant women since 1995, and was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.