SOPHIE KRENSKY, EQUAL JUSTICE
Domestic work—labor involving caring for children, the disabled, and the elderly or cleaning a home—has historically lacked respect and consideration, in both culture and policy. In September of 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill entitling workers to more sick days, but purposefully exempted domestic workers to alleviate cost. The bill is shortsighted—the coming increase in retiring and aging Americans is making elder care the fastest growing profession, but low wages and lack of rights for domestic workers mean high burnout, with a 40-60% turnover rate for a home aide on the job for less than a year.
As an occupation that consists primarily of women, domestic workers are disproportionately subjected to undignified working conditions, such as injury, various abuses, lack of contract, and vulnerable employment status. Their work is often emotionally and physically demanding, with long hours and little time off, only to earn about $20,000 a year. Domestic work’s labor standards are not covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and as such have recently come under scrutiny. While some believe that unionization is the best choice to help these workers’ voices be heard, this traditional approach may not be effective. Both lacking a centralized workplace and being employed under different bosses, domestic workers struggle to find enough common ground to unite.
Earlier this year, a group of non-union domestic workers objected to an Illinois state law that mandates that all workers contribute their “fair share” to the union that the majority of their fellow co-workers voted to be a part of. These costs are typically associated with collective bargaining and administrative costs, but when Harris v. Quinn came before the Supreme Court last year, Justices ruled in favor of the non-union workers, and further weakened the American workers’ claim to collective bargaining rights. The ruling was particularly harmful to the average domestic worker, whose legitimacy as a laborer was further diminished in the eyes of the law.
The disregard of domestic labor as “legitimate” work has dangerous implications for the livelihood of those who care for the people we love. As such, some workers are looking outside the traditional labor union structure to advocate for change. Domestic work movements could benefit from looking to other decentralized, difficult-to-organize labor forces, such as agricultural workers. Recognizing that traditional union action relies on worker centralization and solidarity, Florida’s Fair Food program created a direct bridge between farm workers, employers, and the state, based on education, accountability, and responsibility. Through workers’ rights education programs, a strict employer code of conduct, and high grower and buyer participation, the program has become one of the most effective ways to ensure fair treatment, creating a distribution of power that would be almost unheard of for a traditional union (Fun fact: GW Alternative Breaks leads a community service trip to Immokalee, Florida where trip participants work with the program’s sponsor organization.)
If the courts and policymakers continue to be as ineffective and ignorant of the value of domestic workers, we risk alienating a labor force that works tirelessly to ensure happy, productive lives for our nation’s elderly and disabled. Finding alternative methods to the traditional union model provides new opportunities with a specially-tailored approach for domestic workers to assert their rights. In failing to grant domestic workers basic rights like sick leave, policy makers show where their priorities lie, and it’s not with the person helping their 90-year-old mother go to the bathroom.
OUR OFFICIAL BLOG
The Roosevelt Reader is a space where RI@GW members discuss innovative policy solutions to the pressing political issues facing the District, the nation, and the world.
WRITE FOR US
Your ideas matter. And we want to help broadcast them to the world. Learn more how to become a blog contributor.