The Crisis of Care

Murtaza Hussain and Vanessa Bee discuss the rights of domestic workers with organizer Ai-jen Poo.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photo: Getty Images

Domestic workers — nannies, house cleaners, and care workers — are one of the fastest-growing labor groups in the U.S. They are also some of the most undervalued and least-protected workers, a factor further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

This week on Intercepted: Vanessa Bee and Murtaza Hussain interview Ai-jen Poo, co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, about the impact of Covid-19 on these vulnerable yet essential workers. They also discuss how the exclusion of labor protections for domestic workers has roots in slavery and how President Joe Biden’s jobs plan could ensure historically denied rights. And we hear stories from domestic workers themselves as they organize for their rights on International Domestic Workers Day in New York City.


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Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Vanessa A. Bee: I’m Vanessa, and this week I am a guest host of Intercepted. I am also an editor at Current Affairs. 

Murtaza Hussain: So, I’m a reporter at The Intercept. 

VB: [Laughs.] Hey Maz.

MH: Hey, Vanessa, how are you? 

VB: So Maz, what are we talking about today?

MH: So, today we’re talking about domestic workers and the crisis of care in the United States, and how the changing stresses created by the pandemic have affected different sectors of society.

VB: Yeah! There is a crisis of care. It preceded the pandemic; the events of the last year and a half have definitely exacerbated it, particularly for vulnerable populations which, I think, includes domestic workers.

Care refers to social reproduction: the rearing of the next generation, and the caring of seniors in our population. And social reproduction in itself is deeply gendered work. Even though social reproduction is essential to capitalism, because we’re talking about the next generation of workers, right, it’s still deeply undervalued and under-compensated.

Nothing is accidental, right? There are these roots in our history, where deliberate choices were made to create this vulnerable underclass. The first domestic workers in America were enslaved Black women in the South. And even once that class of women was freed, and allowed to enter the workforce for wages, even the New Deal, which was supposed to be revolutionary in terms of the new rights and benefits that it would provide workers, found ways to exclude them. And we’re continuing to undervalue their work — and then something like the pandemic hits.

MH: Yeah, yeah. You know, it’s fascinating, because it’s really a global issue. The fact that these are people who are doing work which is extremely important — but at the same time extremely poorly compensated relative to that importance — and also people who, by virtue of the work they’re doing, and where they’re doing it, and who they are when they’re doing it, often lack the very basic protections that many of us take for granted. And really the untold story, in some sense, of the pandemic — relative to how important it was — was how it impacted this specific class of workers who often lack access to media, lack legal status, and many other things that put them on a pedestal and high enough to have their concerns raised. 

You know, Vanessa, we’re very lucky today to have Ai-jen Poo joining us. She’s the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and she’s been working on the subject for many, many years.

VB: And before we talk to Ai-jen, I’m curious: Do you have any domestic workers in your life or in your family?

MH: My family were migrant workers from South Asia to the Middle East before I immigrated here — in most cases a category of worker who you don’t really encounter as much as you would had you been either part of that category, or being part of the class who might hire them. 

VB: I’m a first-generation immigrant — I think I’m counting that right, I wasn’t born in this country — and my parents don’t have degrees. So my mom has definitely done domestic work and has also taught small children. I definitely grew up surrounded by women doing that work, like nannies who have been in families for a really long time. 

And it was really interesting to see how even the really wealthy families, to the extent I saw nannies, you know there were definitely some benefits to that, but at the end of the day, without codified labor rights, it seemed like all the benefits of working for these rich families depended on the charity of the families and that could come and go really easily. It’s just a really strange way to work, to so depend on the generosity of your boss. And so I’m excited to talk to today’s guest, because they’re obviously organizing around formalizing some of what domestic workers are entitled to. And I think that’s really exciting. 

Ai-jen, welcome to Intercepted.

Ai-jen Poo: Thank you so much for having me.

VB: Who falls in the category of domestic workers? What does that workforce look like in the United States today in terms of demographics?

AP: When we say domestic workers, we’re referring to nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers, who are basically the workers who provide caregiving and cleaning services inside of our homes. 

It’s a workforce that has always been overwhelmingly women and majority women of color. And some of our first domestic workers in this country were enslaved Black women, as a matter of fact. It is work that even though it’s fundamental to our economy, and is the work that makes everything else possible in our economy, it has always been undervalued. And it’s some of the most insecure work in our entire workforce.

82 percent of the domestic workforce came into the pandemic without a single paid sick day: don’t have access to health care, don’t have access to a safety net. And we finally have a moment now where we can change the conditions of this work, and recognize it, and protect it, and make these jobs really good jobs as a part of our economic recovery.

VB: Do we have a sense of how large a workforce this constitutes? 

AP: You know, it’s really hard to get data on this workforce, because so much of the work happens in the shadows and behind closed doors, right? You could go into any neighborhood and not know which homes are also workplaces. It’s almost defined by that invisibility. 

And we have a huge concentration of undocumented workers in this workforce. It’s actually the sector of our economy with the largest concentration of undocumented workers. 

That said, we estimate that there’s at least between 2.3 and 2.5 million workers who do this work currently in the United States. And I imagine that that’s an undercount.

Sandra: OK, my name is Sandra. I live in Queens. I am from Guatemala. I have been here for 20-plus years, working as a nanny and as a housekeeper. 

We are very important for this society. We are part of the economy, too, because you need somebody to help you with your kids or cleaning your house while you are doing your work. And this is us, the domestic workers. 

Through the pandemic, it was not only scary, but also everything changed for us. I had to let go of my clients in the morning because they were mostly elderly people, and I couldn’t get to them because I was riding on the subways every day. 

I started to get — in my mind — sick, because I was afraid to go on the trains. I saw so many things happening on the subways that I got scared. Every Monday morning I would feel dizzy, nauseous, because I didn’t want to go into the trains. So it was hard for everybody, especially in this kind of industry, because we depend on the everyday income to survive. 

Listen, we need people to understand that we are human beings, and we’re not slaves. And we are not to [snaps her fingers] the snap of their fingers to do whatever they want. We deserve some respect. We deserve to be appreciated, you know? Recognize our rights! We are essential workers, too.

AP: This is a workforce where you have over 2 million workers who are scattered in unmarked homes across America, and your workplace is the private home. And sometimes nobody knows that you’re working there except for you and the employer, not even your own family sometimes.

Imagine what is possible in that context, when you are reliant upon your employer in a private home setting; you are isolated in the workforce and you have no leverage. You’re basically there doing work and if you raise an issue or try to assert your rights, you could just be let go and lose your income. And so just the incredible power imbalance.

Kenya Williams: Hi, I’m Kenya Williams. I’m a domestic worker for 24 years.

You’re like stepping in where the parent is leaving off, you’re stepping in. So 9-10 hour days, and then if you work late, you can have 12-13 hour days. And then when the pandemic hit, to be told that I’m not an essential worker, that hurts, because we are.

If you’ve never done this work, I feel people look at it like, “Oh, I can do that. It’s easy.” No, it’s not. You have to love children. And you have to have that patience. Because you’re not only dealing with them, you’re dealing with the parents. Their home is our office.

VB: How does this compare to when you first started organizing in the 90s?

AP: Wow. Well, when I first started organizing domestic workers it was in New York City in 1998. And, I mean, anyone who walked down the streets of Manhattan during the daytime would see the numbers of women of color pushing white babies in strollers, and that is just such a part of how the New York City economy works and [they] are kind of the invisible lifeblood of the city. 

But, at the time, it wasn’t really a part of the conversation. It wasn’t a part of the political conversation, the economic conversation, the policy conversation. 

Today, I would say that so many people realize and understand that their own experiences are more approximate to those of domestic workers than ever before in that we have so many people who work for poverty wages, who don’t have access to a safety net, have unpredictable hours, and no job security, and are just really struggling in a brutal economy. And we also have so many people working in the care economy, because these are jobs that are increasingly needed and important; there’s more people who are connected to this work and rely on this work, so it has come into our mainstream consciousness in a different way, I think. And the pandemic really just even brought it closer to home for everyone, I think.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: All American workers — brain workers and manual workers alike — and all the rest of us whose well-being depends on last, know that our needs are one in building an orderly economic democracy, in which all can profit and in which all can be secure from the kind of faulty economic direction which brought us to the brink of common ruin seven years ago. There is no cleavage between white collar workers and manual workers, between artists and artisans, musicians and mechanics, lawyers and accountants, architects and miners. Tomorrow, Labor Day … [fades out]

AP: Ever since the New Deal, when our nation’s labor laws were put into place, domestic workers, along with farm workers, have been explicitly excluded from some of the most fundamental labor laws that most of us take for granted when we go to work every day. Like the right to join a union and collectively bargain for a contract or, for a long time, domestic workers were excluded even from the right to minimum wage. 

And so that pattern of exclusion that really is a part of the legacy of slavery in this country has really shaped how this workforce has been treated in our law and policy. And then, on top of that, you have the cultural dynamic where the work isn’t even seen as real work; it’s always been taken for granted that women will just take care of it. And it’s still referred to as help, as opposed to the profession that it is for millions of women. So we have enormous barriers to creating good work and dignified jobs in the sector. That is what we can and must do for these jobs.

Meches: My name is  Meches and I am originally from Guatemala City, and I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I work in Manhattan as a nanny for the past 15 years of my life. 

Well, the first thing is that domestic workers, we are as professional as a teacher, or a banker, or the CEO of a big company, we are as professionals as them, and we should be getting the respect and the dignity they do. Yeah.

Before 2010, domestic workers, we couldn’t even call ourselves workers. As a worker, you can go ask for your rights, and you can go to the Department of Labor and say, “OK, they don’t pay me my overtime,” and stuff like that, and you can demand that; you can sue your employers. But before 2010, you couldn’t do that.

It’s good we have the bill of rights, because now we can have contracts. And then people cannot exploit me or think that I can be a slave, because I can have a contract. And I can say, “OK, I can call the Department of Labor, because you are not treating me right.” That’s why the domestic bill of rights are so important.

MH: And Ai-jen, I know you’ve worked on a domestic bill of rights in the past. Can you explain a bit of what that document and what principles underlie it?

AP: So the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a framework for state-level policy — and now national policy — that not only brings this workforce under the existing labor laws and protections that it has been excluded from for so long, but it also creates new protections and new frameworks to ensure that these workers are able to be protected and that these jobs can become good jobs. 

At the federal level now, we’re super excited because we have a national Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that was first introduced in 2019 by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal from Washington State.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal: We’re here today to take responsibility for the legacy of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which excluded domestic workers and farm workers from protection. 

I want to focus on domestic workers. Today, over 2.5 million nannies and house cleaners, and care workers do the work of caring and cleaning in homes across this country. Over half of these domestic workers are Black, Hispanic, Asian American or Pacific Islander. And in 1930, an estimated 79 percent of domestic workers in the South were Black. So domestic workers have traditionally been people of color.

PJ: Thank you for mentioning my Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. That bill would fix this for domestic workers by extending common workplace rights and protections to domestic workers, including overtime pay, paid sick days, privacy, and other civil rights protections. The bill also extends new workplace rights and benefits that address the unique challenges of … [fades out]

MH: You know, one thing that people are generally aware of, but often not the details, is that undocumented workers often lack enforcement mechanisms to ensure their rights. Are there things in the legal structure of the immigration system or the labor law that could aid undocumented workers in the U.S.?

AP: Even though undocumented people are technically not authorized to work, we know that they are working, and that our economy relies on them, and once they’re in a job, they are protected by the same labor rights as every other worker. So they have a right to a minimum wage and overtime. 

Where the challenge comes in is in enforcing those rights. So many undocumented workers are afraid to exercise their rights that they do have as workers because they’re afraid that their employers will contact immigration, and then put them on a path to deportation and being separated from their families — so that their employers will expose them as a form of retaliation for workers trying to exercise rights that they have. 

If you look at it from a labor-rights standpoint, if what we want to do is create good jobs in this country, as long as we have a layer of people that employers can take advantage of — with impunity — and not have to worry about being held accountable, it will always be a gravitational pull downwards to draw working conditions down for everyone. And if what we want to do is lift and raise the floor, we have to secure it by securing citizenship for every worker, first and foremost, so that our rights for workers in this country matter, so that they can be real for all of us.

VB: How do you draw the line between labor abuses and trafficking?

AP: We describe the domestic work industry as the Wild West, oftentimes, because you never quite know what you’re going to get. You might find an employer who treats you with respect and offers you a living wage and offers you, even, a written agreement and maybe even healthcare. I’ve heard those stories; they exist. And then you’ll find the other end of the spectrum: human trafficking, modern-day slavery, rape and sexual assault, non-payment of wages for years, all kinds of abuses that are too horrific to even describe. And then there’s everything in between. 

And absent standards, guidelines, laws that are enforced — it’s a free-for-all. There’s nothing really determining what the conditions are, and it’s just up to the whim and the good or bad fortune of who and what is behind the door that you knock on when you go to work every day. And so human trafficking exists on a spectrum, and is a function of a labor environment where there aren’t standards that are enforced. And that is why standards are so important.

MH: How do you feel that perhaps the importance of highlighting the status and needs of undocumented workers or immigrant workers, generally, may become more important in the years to come as more of the burden of labor in the U.S. potentially falls on them? Is that something you see happening? And, if so, how can we best prepare for not having that result in a human rights crisis down the road?

AP: Every eight seconds, someone turns 65 in America; that’s 10,000 people per day, because of the baby-boom generation aging into retirement. And because of advances in healthcare and technology, people are living longer than ever before — an average of 20 years longer than when we first started to build our safety net — and we haven’t at all adopted our culture, and our policies, and our infrastructure to support that additional lifespan that we’ve added onto our lives in this country.

What we need is a huge amount of care. And we need a really strong care workforce to support that. And it has to include immigrants. Care work is one of the fastest growing job categories in our American workforce because these are jobs that can’t be outsourced, they’re not going to be automated, and there’s this enormous demand. And 90 percent of Americans would prefer to age at home and not go into a nursing home, especially after Covid and what we’ve seen happen. So we need a home-care workforce that is fully inclusive of immigrants who have citizenship. And that’s what we can do right now, this year, is Congress can make that happen. Congress can make these jobs good jobs, and it’s a part of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. And Congress can create a path to citizenship for essential workers, like care workers, who we need to keep us safe and are going to be a part of our solutions and our recovery.

Domestic workers came into the pandemic from an incredibly insecure position, earning a salary of, on average, about $17,000 per year — $17,000. As soon as the stay-at-home orders came down, domestic workers started losing jobs and income at dramatic rates, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s just been really difficult. And I will say that it has been incredibly meaningful and powerful that President Biden has put the care workforce front and center in his economic agenda; the president has announced and stayed strong in support of a $400 billion investment in home and community care for the aging and people with disabilities. And there’s a lot of people asking a lot of questions about: What does care have to do with jobs and infrastructure?

President Joseph R. Biden: I’m proposing for the nation that rewards work, not just rewards wealth. It builds a fairer economy that gives everybody a chance to succeed. And it’s going to create the strongest, most resilient, innovative economy in the world. It’s not a plan that tinkers around the edges; it’s a once-in-a-generation investment in America, unlike anything we’ve seen or done since we built the interstate highway system and the Space Race decades ago. In fact, it’s the largest American jobs investment since World War II. 

VB: Can you say a little more about how care is infrastructure?

AP: The definition of infrastructure is the systems, programs, and personnel that enable economic activity and society to function. What could be more enabling than care? 

Before the pandemic, a lot of us thought about childcare or eldercare or paid leave as kind of a personal responsibility, and if we didn’t have access to those things, or we couldn’t afford childcare, or we couldn’t afford home-care for a loved one, there was something wrong with us — like we failed to save, or we have the wrong job, or we’re not a good parent. And I think what the pandemic really underscored is that it is impossible to do alone, and that we need programs, policies, government-supported funding and systems that allow for us to care for our loved ones while we work. 

The president’s $400 billion investment in home and community-based services is an infrastructure and jobs investment in three different ways: One in terms of actually having living wages with benefits and economic security is transformative as a job strategy, and federal funding can make that happen immediately. 

Second, there are almost 52 million working family caregivers who work full time outside of the home, and provide unpaid family care to an aging loved one or a loved one with disabilities. And we heard the shocking numbers of women who were pushed out of the workforce because of caregiving challenges. That’s this demographic of people. This group of working family caregivers need access to care in order to work. And the third benefit is to the people with disabilities and older people who need these services and rely on them for their basic, fundamental quality of life and health care, their safety and their independence. It is just incredibly important, and impactful, and strategic to think about care as infrastructure, and to invest in it the way we invest in infrastructure, so that the rest of the economy can thrive, so that we can go back to work, so that these jobs in the care economy can be good jobs. It’s an incredibly high-leverage intervention.

MH: Ai-jen, we’ve spoken mainly in the context of the U.S. in this conversation. But the issue of domestic workers, immigrant labor, and migrant labor is very global. Are there also other countries or regions where you see parallels, or where issues could be interconnected? 

One place that came to mind with me is the Middle East, where many migrant and domestic workers are imported from around the world to work there. To what extent do you see this as being a global issue? And how do you think the U.S. situation may compare favorably or unfavorably to other places?

AP: Around the world domestic workers are organizing and building power in incredibly creative ways, innovative ways, and we are connected through a global federation called the International Domestic Worker Federation, where we have member affiliates in 53 countries around the world. And we’ll be celebrating Convention 189 this June for International Domestic Workers day. 

This moment has brought us together to recognize that organizing and building community is not just about building power, but it’s also about building resilience in times of crisis, like what we’ve just been through.

Allison Julien: So good afternoon, everyone. Good afternoon! [Crowd responds: “Good afternoon!] Happy International Domestic Workers Day! [Cheers and claps.]

My name is Allison Julien. I’m the co-director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance New York Chapter. Today is June 16, which is international Domestic Workers Day. And we’re here with domestic workers from across the city, domestic employers, allies and supporters calling on Speaker Corey Johnson to bring Intro 339 or the New York City Human Rights Law to the floor for a vote.

Judith: Buenas tardes a todos. Good afternoon, everyone. 

My story is this one: 10 years ago, when I have my child, I was working for four years with one family. She wants to marry, she has to marry — the daughter — but I asked permission to miss that day of work. I advised two weeks before, because I have an important appointment for my pregnancy. They fired me at that time. They fired me! OK? After four years supporting and taking care of the children, OK? 

We are essential. We need Corey Johnson to pass Intro 339. This is the time! We are humans. We are humans, OK? We decide to be mothers. That’s not an excuse just to fire just for being mothers. It is our decision. And they have to accommodate their hours to continue working. We are essential. [Fades out.]

VB: I’m curious: What drew you to this particular branch of organizing? And all these years later, what keeps you going? What keeps you in this line of work, day after day?

AP: I really believe in the leadership and power of women. I think women are amazing. And the women who care for us and care for their own families have so much to teach us about what really matters and what values should shape our future. They have so little power in the hierarchy of human value that our society is organized around. And yet they give so much, and enable so much. 

And imagine if they had power and if they were at the forefront of shaping our future? We would have an economy that left no one behind, that put at the center the things that matter most. And, wow, so much would be possible. Yeah. And that’s what keeps me going is the belief and the knowledge; I now have proof that organizing works and winning as possible and organizing expands the realm of what’s possible, so you can keep winning bigger and bigger things.

MH: Ai-jen Poo is the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

VB: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is the editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Special thanks to Holly DeMuth. And our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. I’m Vanessa A. Bee.

MH: I’m Murtaza Hussain.

VB: Until next time.

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