America’s most invisible workforce is the one we need the most

Source: The Guardian Unlimited

I started organizing domestic workers 16 years ago. I signed up nannies, housekeepers and home health aides at parks and train stations as they quietly took care of our children, our households and our elders. Many of them had no clue about labor laws or their rights as workers – they struggled to make ends meet with extremely low pay and no benefits – but they performed their jobs with dedication and took care of our loved ones with pride, dignity and grace.

I found all those years ago that building a bright future for these workers depended on how America valued the care they provided us. In my work, care has emerged as the connective tissue to encompass all identities and enable us to transcend to the level of values and ethics. We must become a nation that values care, a caring America. Because each one of us is connected to care. Because we still largely ignore the needs of those nannies, housekeepers and aides who care for us.

There are at least 3m care workers across the United States. They help our loved ones eat and bathe while providing emotional support and human connection. These workers also take care of us – making it possible to go to work every day knowing our loved ones are in capable hands. They substantially cut healthcare costs by keeping people in their homes and communities and out of expensive institutions. If domestic workers were to strike, it would affect almost every sector in our economy – from doctors and lawyers, bankers and professors, to small business owners and media executives.

Yet in return for the life-sustaining supports that care workers provide, we have failed to care for them. Care workers earn, on average, less than $10 per hour. They rarely receive paid vacation or sick days. Most workers are subject to termination without notice or severance pay; many without citizenship status fear they can do nothing to improve their situations. When individual workers try to raise their wages or improve their conditions with their employers, employers can simply hire another worker. Care work, historically associated with the unpaid work of homemakers or the poorly paid work of women of color and immigrant women, remains undervalued and virtually invisible to public consciousness.

We’ve now entered a new era, where our collective failure to account for family care work has become untenable. In the past decade, the explosion of America’s older adult population has taken hold. Every eight seconds someone turns 65, and by 2035 there will be 11.5m Americans over the age of 85, more than double today’s 5m. Our elders want to age with dignity in their own homes, and this requires the skilled support of home-care workers. As a result of this tremendous need, workers who were originally hired as nannies or housekeepers are now often called upon to care for the aging relatives of their employers.

This elder boom offers a tremendous opportunity to change the very character of care work. The current situation of the elder-care workforce – low wages, long hours, inadequate training and little chance for career advancement – leads to high turnover, poor quality of life for the workforce and poor quality care for our seniors. Creating dignified care jobs will have a ripple effect socially and economically, as we encourage society to affirm the dignity of people at every stage of life and from every walk of life.

Continue reading