Bad Jobs in Our Very Own Homes

January 14, 2013

We’ve been hearing a lot about good jobs — mostly how we need more of them. Sometimes what could be done to create them.

Now comes the National Domestic Workers Alliance and partners with a report on really bad jobs — specifically, the wages, hours and other working conditions for nannies, housecleaners and caregivers for elderly and disabled people.

The report is based on a survey of more than 2,000 of these workers in 14 metropolitan areas across the country.

Lots of racial and ethnic diversity — though, as you might guess, little gender diversity in these “women’s work” occupations. Many countries of origin.

But the workers all had three things in common because that’s how the survey was designed.

They were at least 18 years old. They’d worked at least six hours the prior week in their domestic help occupation. And they were employed directly by the families they served.

No chance to blame agencies for the rock-bottom pay, lack of benefits and extraordinarily long hours — the last of these mainly for the live-in workers.

A sample of the findings to show what I’m talking about here:

  • The median wage for the workers surveyed was $10 an hour — well under the U.S. Department of Labor’s threshold for what full-time, year round workers need to earn for minimal economic security.
  • Twenty-three percent of the workers were paid less than the applicable minimum wage. And fewer than a third got overtime pay.
  • Ten percent of the workers didn’t always get paid what had been agreed on — or at all — during the prior 12 months.
  • Not surprisingly, 60% of the workers spent more than half their income on housing, and 20% sometimes didn’t have any food in their homes because they couldn’t afford to buy it.

In one respect, we can blame employers — ourselves, at least collectively — for taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of workers who’ve got no job security beyond keeping us reasonably satisfied.

There are vulnerabilities too, the report says, in the fact that domestic work is “invisible.” Who knows what goes on behind the closed doors of private dwellings?

Well, we do. And the report calls on us to be “part of the solution, ” i.e., to provide our domestic workers with contractual agreements, wages, benefits and other working conditions that befit people to whom we entrust the care of our loved ones, our possessions and the intimate details of our private lives.

In another respect, however, we can blame public policies for leaving domestic workers at the mercy of our inclinations.

As I’ve written before, home care workers aren’t covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act rules that generally require employers to pay the federal minimum wage and overtime.

The Act itself specifically exempts all live-in domestic workers from the overtime pay requirement.

Domestic workers are also exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, which establishes basic — if weakly enforced — protections for workers who try to organize and bargain collectively.

And from rules issued under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which might, in theory, provide some protection.

To make matters worse, only 14 states and the District of Columbia require households to carry workers compensation insurance for their domestic employees, regardless of wages, hours or the number employed.

And unemployment insurance benefits are iffy due to states’ rules on minimum earnings — and more often than not, requirements that exclude workers who can’t accept full-time jobs.

Say, for the sake of argument, that all these laws were amended. A large number of domestic workers still couldn’t assert their rights to the wages and other conditions DWRA advocates for because they’re not authorized to be here.

We don’t know how many there are because the Census Bureau sensibly doesn’t try to find out. We do know they were 47% of the DWRA survey sample, however.

Their wages were lower than those of other workers surveyed. And more of them experienced problems with their working conditions.

But 85% of them said they didn’t complain because they feared their immigration status would be used against them, i.e., that their employers would take revenge by reporting them to the authorities.

So it would seem that improving domestic workers’ jobs would require the long-overdue reform of our immigration laws, as well as elimination of the aforementioned exemptions.

What’s true for immigration laws is also true for other laws, the report says, because “[i]t is difficult to advocate for the rights of domestic workers in an economic and political environment in which the rights of low-wage workers more broadly are so badly frayed.”

So we have to seek public policies that raise standards and improve opportunities for the whole low-wage workforce. But we’ve obviously got to address the occupation-specific exclusions too.

In 2010, there were 726,437 domestic workers in private households — nearly 10% more than in 2004, according to the Census Bureau.

This is probably an undercount — in part because those who are undocumented may understandably have chosen not to share information with any government agency.

Whatever the true number, millions of other workers depend on housecleaners, nannies and other caregivers to free up their time for more rewarding occupations.

We’re told that many say their domestic employees are “like a member of the family.”

Imagine what would happen if we thought of real family members constrained to work so hard for so little — and with so few of the basic legal and safety net protections we usually take for granted.