Nearly 2.5 million people do some form of domestic work in the United States alone. They are nannies for small children, and they care for aging loved ones. They clean houses, they assist people with disabilities, and they provide the support that enables scores of women to maintain jobs and careers outside the home.
Domestic work requires a symbiotic relationship between employer and employee for both people to support their families and lead productive, happy livelihoods that they can take pride in. This is what Ai-jen Poo, the cofounder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), wants more people to understand. Particularly in a pandemic, when the need for proper workplace protections and economic relief for domestic workers and caregivers is at an all-time high. “I think what the COVID crisis has revealed is that care is essential,” Poo tells SELF. “It’s almost fundamental infrastructure. When you think about infrastructure, we think about the roads, and the bridges, and the transportation systems that allow us to get to work, but even more fundamental than that is the care—the childcare, the elder care—that allows us to make sure that our families are safe and healthy in order for us to go out and do the work that we do every day.”
As fundamental as this domestic work is to the health and functioning of our society as a whole, the people in these kinds of roles tend to be extremely vulnerable to the worst of the pandemic—which is why advocating now for proper protections is so important. A May 19–June 6 survey of Black immigrant domestic workers (both with and without documentation) from the NDWA’s We Dream in Black program and the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative showed that nearly half of respondents reported losing their jobs (45%) and 73% hadn’t received protective equipment from their employers. Fifty-one percent didn’t have health insurance, 65% feared eviction or utility shutoffs in the next three months, and 49% were afraid to ask for help from the government because of their immigration status.
Then, in an October 2020 report by the NDWA that surveyed more than 20,000 Spanish-speaking cleaners, nannies, and home care workers over a six-month period, more than 90% of those workers reported losing their jobs by late March due to COVID-19. For six months, more than half of these workers could not afford to pay their rent or mortgage. Just over three quarters of these workers are primary breadwinners for their families, 99% are women, and 89% are mothers to kids in grade 12 and younger.
Below, SELF speaks with Poo about the urgent needs of domestic workers amid the pandemic, what she wishes more people understood about the line of work and its sheer importance in our society, and what you can do to support domestic workers and caregivers in your own life or community.
SELF: First, I just wanted to ask how you’re doing right now.
Ai-jen Poo: I think everyone is full of mixed emotions right now. On the one hand, we’re still dealing with this raging pandemic, and it’s still costing lots of lives and livelihoods. And at the same time, I think people are hopeful about a new year, a new beginning. I feel a lot of gratitude that we made it through this year, and we have a new administration to look forward to—a first woman and woman of color vice president. And I’m also deeply concerned about the women that I work with, who are still very much on the front lines of this crisis.
What is your main focus at the National Domestic Workers Alliance amid the pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic, about 90% of domestic workers lost their income and really struggled to put food on the table. And then a whole bunch continued to work through the pandemic as essential workers and had to navigate these impossible choices while their kids were home from school and they didn’t have access to health care, or paid sick days, and had to figure out how to keep themselves and their families safe.
So we’ve been doing a few things: We’ve been offering cash assistance to domestic workers who’ve been impacted by the COVID crisis through our fund called the Coronavirus Care Fund, and we’ve distributed more than $20 million to domestic workers in need. [Editor’s note: The Coronavirus Care Fund is no longer accepting donations, but you can still read about it here.] We’ve also been advocating for policy like the Essential Workers Bill of Rights, which can provide relief and protections for essential workers like domestic workers, and making sure that everyone can have access to the relief that Congress is discussing. Right now a lot of the relief efforts haven’t reached immigrant families or a lot of the vulnerable workers who are in the greatest need right now.
Your advocacy work aims to show a more holistic view of what makes someone a caregiver. What is your definition of a caregiver, and who is considered a domestic worker or caregiver?
The way that we define a domestic worker is anyone who works in our homes, which by definition isn’t work that can be done remotely. It’s in-person work that provides caregiving and cleaning services. So it’s the nanny who takes care of our kids; it’s the home care workers who take care of our parents and our grandparents and help them age at home; it’s the home care workers who support people with disabilities to be able to live independently; it’s the house cleaners who maintain safety and sanity in our homes.
We also really support family caregivers. Family caregivers are people like all of us, really, who are responsible for managing care for our loved ones. All of us have childcare needs, or have parents and grandparents—aging loved ones—who we’re worried about needing care as they grow older.
It’s so expensive to afford care. The average cost of childcare in this country is about $9,000 a year. The average cost of a private room in a nursing home is more than $100,000 per year. And we have an economy where more than half of the workforce earns less than $50,000 per year. The numbers just don’t add up. If for some reason we struggle, we blame ourselves. We think that we’re bad parents, or bad daughters, and that it’s somehow a personal failure, when in reality, I think what the COVID crisis has revealed is that care is essential. It’s almost fundamental infrastructure. When you think about infrastructure, we think about the roads, and the bridges, and the transportation systems that allow us to get to work, but even more fundamental than that is the care—the childcare, the elder care—that allows us to make sure that our families are safe and healthy in order for us to go out and do the work that we do every day.
Part of our vision for this next administration and this next Congress is that we really want to make sure that we’re investing in the care economy to make care much more affordable and accessible to every working family. And to make sure that our care workforce, like domestic workers, are able to earn living wages and take care of their own families. It’s about making sure that our families are cared for, and our caregivers too.
Why is legislation for domestic workers so important?
One thing that a lot of people don’t know is that domestic workers have been excluded from basic labor laws and rights that most of us take for granted when we go to work every day. In the 1930s, when Congress was debating the New Deal labor laws that became the foundation of workers’ rights in this country, southern members of Congress refused to support those laws if they included equal protections for Black farm workers and domestic workers. That history of the way racism has shaped our policy and our culture in this country has really defined reality for this workforce who are mostly women, and disproportionately women of color, still to this day.
What we saw in September is that more than 860,000 women had to leave the workforce, and a lot of it was because of challenges navigating caregiving for their families. When we don’t have a strong care infrastructure, it not only affects workers who can’t live on the wages that they earn doing this work, but it affects so many other women across all kinds of industries and jobs because we all need care. So [legislation] is such a good way of lifting all boats.
I often say to members of Congress, when we think about the kinds of jobs programs that stimulate the economy and help us out of recession, it’s usually infrastructure jobs that go to men in hard hats. But the reality of the workforce today is that it’s a lot of women. When we think about what our economic recovery looks like, it has to support women workers. And if we put care workers at the forefront, it not only benefits those workers and their families, but it benefits all of us because it makes it possible for all of us to go to work. I call them “job-enabling jobs.”
What is one very entry-level, accessible action that people can take to advocate for domestic workers and caregivers right now?
Well, this is perfect timing because Congress is going to be discussing legislation to provide relief and a path to economic recovery coming out of the COVID crisis. I would love for your readers to call their members of Congress and let them know that they want caregivers to be supported in our economic recovery plans. So that means investing in care jobs becoming living wage jobs with benefits, and also making sure that caregiving services are more affordable and accessible to everyone.
At the community level, we released a whole set of guidelines on our website, basically like a checklist, for if you hire somebody in your home. It’s a resource for families who are navigating, “How do I support my caregiver? How do I make sure that she has what she needs in order to stay safe and keep her family safe?” It’s about making sure that she’s compensated, and that she has paid sick days and paid time off when she needs it to take care of her family.
Then there’s the Alia platform. It’s a really simple, user-friendly platform that allows for people who hire house cleaners, for example, to contribute to their ability to access basic benefits, like paid time off. [Editor’s note: The NDWA created the Alia benefits platform in partnership with NDWA Labs and Casa Latina.] We’ve heard so many domestic workers tell us that with the Alia platform, it’s the first time in over a decade that they’ve been able to take a paid day off. And that’s been so essential in the COVID crisis because people’s families are getting sick and need care too.
During this pandemic, we are all in some way or another stepping up to care for our communities or for our loved ones. What do you think those of us who aren’t already caregivers can learn from those who are—or should learn about them—as many of us step into caregiver roles ourselves?
The pandemic has created this situation where we all just feel alone. I think caregivers really teach us that we don’t have to be alone, and that we really rely on each other. Women are so good about this. Women are always in our squads. We’ve always got our people, and it’s just a good reminder that caregiving, and everything else in life, is a team effort. We should make those relationships visible and valued in our culture and in our policy.
We now have the attention of so many people who’ve realized that these caregivers are essential, right? They may have been more invisible before, but they’re actually essential to our safety, to our families, to our economy. And so now is the time where we can really demand that caregivers are treated with the respect and the recognition that they deserve. What gives me hope is that we can emerge from this crisis with a much stronger care infrastructure. People understand how important care is, and I think now is the time that we can make sure that our policies really reflect that.
Do you have any baseline self-care tips for domestic workers or caregivers who might be reading this?
We have all kinds of resources for domestic workers on our website, domesticworkers.org. It also includes an emotional support text line called CareTogether. If you are working and feeling isolated, feeling alone, and like you could use some emotional support, you can reach out to the text line, which puts you in touch with a counselor and somebody who really understands the experiences of caregivers to be a resource for you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.