23 percent of workers are paid below the state minimum wage.*
Undocumented domestic workers are paid about 20% less than those who are U.S. citizens.
66% of all those surveyed reported working while sick, injured or in pain. 56% of U.S.-born domestic workers and 77% of undocumented domestic workers reported working under such conditions.
Workers of color make up 54% of the domestic workforce.
The median wage for white caregivers is $12/hour; that of black and Latino caregivers is $10/hour; and $8.33 for Asian caregivers. (The exception is black nannies, who make an average $12.71/hour as opposed to $12.51 for white nannies.)
This report exposes how our nation’s blatantly discriminatory labor field reflects onto the domestic work sphere–a sphere that lacks even basic labor standards. Just last month, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have protected California’s domestic workers’ rights.
“The report calls for basic protections—state policy that includes domestic workers in minimum wage laws; domestic workers’ access to state and federal overtime pay; and a right to meal breaks, rest days, and at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep for live-in domestic workers. The policy proposals are so fundamental that they provide their own jarring portrait of the difficult, hazardous world of working inside the home.”
Just days after the historic Walmart worker strike, we are reminded that the fight for worker rights is still relevant and largely affects women and their families.
This report documents serious and widespread mistreatment of domestic workers – nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers – in the United States. They are underpaid, in many cases less than the minimum wage, and often at levels too low to adequately care for their own families. They are almost universally excluded from coverage by labor laws and usually work without a contract or any kind of agreement, written or oral, with their employers. They often perform work that is physically punishing, involving heavy lifting, long hours, and exposure to potentially harmful cleaning products. They may be subject to physical and verbal abuse by their employers, even enduring, in the case of live in immigrant workers, conditions indistinguishable from slavery.
Similar forms of mistreatment are widespread in the American workforce. As the strength of unions declines, fewer and fewer workers have contracts defining the terms of their employment. Hazardous working conditions go unchecked by an underfunded Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Hourly wages for workers have stagnated for decades, and actually have declined since the economic downturn that began in 2008. Many employers, including some of the largest corporations, resort to “wage theft” by failing to pay overtime or requiring workers to work well beyond the hours they are paid for – a practice that accounts for an estimated $105 billion a year in stolen wages. Shocking forms of abuse, including beatings and public humiliations, have been inflicted on salespeople who fail to meet their quotas.
What distinguishes domestic workers from, say, retail, hotel, or sales employees, is the intimacy of their relationship to their employers. Someone who stocks shelves in a big box store is unlikely to even know the names of anyone higher up in the corporate hierarchy than the store manager, who in turn may know his or her front line employees only as a “labor cost.” In contrast, except for those who work for companies like Merry Maids, most domestic workers are employed directly by the families they serve. They work in their employers’ homes. They may even live in their employers’ homes, perhaps sleeping in one of the children’s rooms.
Domestic work is, by necessity, intensely personal in nature. A nanny is entrusted with the care and well-being of the employers’ most precious loved ones. She is a witness to all the family’s foibles and dysfunctions, sometimes even a confidante to her employers. Though a house cleaner may make little verbal contact with her employers, they have few secrets from her. She changes their sheets, dusts their desktops, scrubs their bathroom counters, and sometimes overhears their quarrels. The caretaker for an elderly or disabled person often functions explicitly as a companion, providing conversation and emotional support, as well as help with dressing and bathing.
It is the intimacy of domestic work that makes the mistreatment of domestic workers so baffling, at least when compared to the mistreatment of more anonymous corporate employees. Many employers respond to this intimacy by attempting to treat their domestic workers as “members of the family” – taking an interest in their employees’ health and financial well-being, including them in family celebrations. But many others are hostile or exploitative toward their domestic workers, in ways that seem almost perverse. Why would anyone want the person who takes care of their children to be suffering from sleep deprivation, a common complaint of live-in domestic workers, or seething with resentment over unpaid back wages?
By and large, employers, no matter how abusive, can count on the strong service ethic of their domestic workers. Even the most miserably mistreated nanny, who may lack a room or bed of her own, tends to develop affection for the children she cares for. Housecleaners typically take great pride in their work even when it goes unnoticed or unappreciated by their employers. What is being exploited in these instances is not just the domestic worker’s labor and skills, but her sense of interpersonal responsibility, her capacity for love.
This report presents the employers of domestic workers with a profound moral challenge: Will they continue to rely on the good will of their employees or will they reciprocate with decent wages and dignified treatment? Many will rise to the occasion, just as thousands around the country have already rallied to the support of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. But the best way to bring an end to the abuses documented in this report is to go beyond appeals to individual conscience and codify the rights of domestic workers in contracts and law. As a start, we must insist on the inclusion of domestic workers under the coverage of existing labor laws.
The challenge posed by Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work goes beyond the immediate community of employers. Anyone who reads this report will be forced to reflect on the larger consequences of extreme inequality, which are moral as well as economic. As we should have learned from the crisis that brought on a global downturn, inequality threatens economic stability. It also has a brutalizing effect on the people who perpetuate it, especially the affluent employers who live in intimate dependency on people far poorer than themselves. Home Economics offers a way out of this shameful situation, a clear course of action toward a society in which everyone’s work is respected and valued.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist, activist, and author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She is the founder of the recently launched Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which supports innovative journalism about poverty and low-wage work in America.