The Four Pillars for a New Care Economy: Centering Domestic Workers in our Recovery Efforts
To elevate and further the conversations from our 2020 Virtual Conference, Meeting the Movement, we are pleased to present a series of articles that capture the crucial opportunities for funders to reimagine their philanthropic work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing systemic inequities and exposed significant gaps in our social safety net and care infrastructure. Essential workers— predominately Black, Latinx, and people of color—continue to be on the frontlines, taking care of our loved ones and keeping us safe while risking their well-being. In the last several months, BIPOC communities have seen alarming infection and death rates as our country falls short of providing them with the essential social and economic supports necessary for their health and safety.
What will it take to support our country’s essential workers— primarily domestic and home-care workers— as we craft a long-term recovery plan? At SCG’s 2020 Virtual Conference, Meeting the Movement, our keynote session, A Caring Future: Supporting Essential Workers for an Equitable Economy, elevated a new vision to achieve a just care economy. Session speakers included Ai-jen Poo, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Aquilina Soriano Versoza, Executive Director at the Pilipino Workers Center, Aleja Plaza, Domestic Worker-Leader at the Pilipino Workers Center; and Andre Oliver, Initiative Director at The James Irvine Foundation. Our speakers proposed a new type of care infrastructure that reimagines work as we understand it today and centers our most vulnerable essential workers in economic recovery plans.
Reframing Notions of Work
According to Ai-jen Poo, our culture conceptualizes work in two main ways. The first is a romanticized past filled with images of white men in hard hats working in construction and manufacturing. The second is a fetishized future of work where artificial intelligence replaces all workers, and technology rules everything. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that neither of these fantasies is real. Today’s working-class population in America is multi-racial, full of immigrants, and at least half composed of women. There is also a much broader range of industries present for working populations, including domestic care, agriculture, day labor, construction, custodial services, and many others.
In recent months, the increased use of the term “essential work” has given visibility to many industries that were once invisible to the public eye. This attention has exposed that many of these jobs provide low wages that keep people in poverty. The pandemic has also shown us the fragility of our economy and the reality that we cannot rely on our social safety net to support our workforce in moments of crisis. Low-wage workers power our service-driven economy, and our collective well-being depends on their health and safety. By reframing our notions of work, we have an opportunity to unite people from different sectors toward a common goal. Additionally, this frame allows the general public to understand our essential workers better and address the low-wage work epidemic.
A New Vision for Domestic Workers
Domestic work is among the fastest-growing occupations in the country and one of the industries that cannot be outsourced and automated. And yet, domestic workers have struggled throughout the pandemic to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy, even as they care for our homes and loved ones. The grim reality is that the labor of essential workers— especially domestic workers like nannies, house cleaners, and home-care workers— is first devalued in our economy and culture and then excluded from labor protections.
Over the past decade, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), alongside their sister campaign, Caring Across Generations, has been developing a new vision for domestic workers to achieve the dignity, respect, and professionalism essential workers deserve in the 21st century. The goal is to strengthen the care economy and make childcare, paid leave, long-term services, and other fundamental rights universally accessible and supported by public infrastructure and policy. The National Domestic Workers Alliance believes that we currently have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move a bold plan around work and care in America. The NDWA prioritizes four policy and programmatic pillars that center on essential workers’ economic recovery to realize this vision.
The Four Pillars for a New Care Economy
Pillar 1: Expand the safety net to protect all workers, including domestic workers, gig workers, and a range of nontraditional workers who have fallen through the cracks.
Throughout the COVID pandemic, essential workers have continued working in high-risk work environments to continue receiving their wages. However, working in these environments increases their risk of infection and the possibility that they might miss work, lose their income, and endanger their housemate's and families’ health. The truth is, low-wage workers are making an impossible choice every day because they know they cannot rely on a safety net that will do little to support them. To this day, impacted workers urgently need essential support such as food, shelter, and health services. Expanding the social safety net by providing benefits like sick days, paid leave, portable benefits, access to healthcare, and more would help ensure our most at-risk workers’ safety and health.
Pillar 2: Achieve a Workers’ Bill of Rights at the federal, state, and local levels.
The National Workers Bill of Rights would advocate for a higher quality of work for domestic workers and address unfair conditions such as long hours, low wages, diminishing benefits, and lack of job security and rights. As Ai-jen notes, foundational labor laws have deliberately excluded domestic workers for many decades. A national bill of rights would provide them long-overdue protections. This federal bill would require employers to provide a written agreement with clear expectations about pay, duties, schedules, and time-off policies, in addition to protecting domestic workers from any forms of discrimination based on sex, race, religion, or national origin. NDWA hopes to realize this pillar at the federal level first before seeking opportunities to enact it at the state and local levels.
Pillar 3: Push for domestic worker protections to address the specific challenges of working inside private homes. Support employers who hire domestic workers by proposing guidelines to help them navigate the pandemic context.
The COVID pandemic and California’s wildfires have exposed the variety of hazards domestic workers face in the unregulated environments of employer’s private homes. Some domestic workers have reported that they’ve had to clean up toxic ashes from the wildfires without any protective gear. Not only are domestic workers being exposed to severe health risks, but many workers also do not have access to adequate healthcare. As domestic workers continue to navigate the hazards present in private homes, they deserve occupational health and safety rights.
To support this effort, NDWA supported Bill SB-1257, which would include California’s 300,000+ domestic workers in the state’s occupational health and safety law, CAL/OSHA, and provide them with the necessary protections given to other California workers. Governor Newsom vetoed the bill in late September, citing that “a blanket extension of all employer obligations to private homeowners and renters is unworkable and raises significant policy concerns.” The Governor also mentioned that his administration is committed to developing solutions to “protect domestic workers and the privacy of an individual's private residence.”
Pillar 4: Advocate for significant investments in our economic recovery plan to make childcare, paid leave, and long-term care more affordable and accessible for everyone.
NDWA believes this is a unique opportunity to push for investments that strengthen the country’s caregiving infrastructure and support all families and workers alike. Caring Across Generations released a report showing that “expanding access to quality childcare and community- and home-based care will create jobs quickly, spur job growth in other sectors, and ensure financial stability for professional and informal caregivers.” Learn more about Caring Across Generations Policy Agenda and what it will take to realize this pillar on its website
How funders Can Take Action
California has one of the most robust state coalitions of local organizations working to change policy, change the culture, educate voters, and move America closer toward a new care economy. With Los Angeles’s dynamic community of active workers centers, Southern California has the potential to be a unique hub of innovation when it comes to strengthening care infrastructure, reimagining the safety net, and determining the future of jobs in California. Philanthropy has an opportunity to participate in the reimagining of our core infrastructure by engaging in advocacy and by supporting the initiatives of organizations working directly with essential workers.