We Need to Talk About the Domestic Workers Making Our Lives Possible

Callie Enlow — In the Balance

I remember when I first floated the idea of hiring a housecleaner. I’d been inspired by Caitlin Moran’s memoir/manifesto How to Be a Woman, in which she resolutely maintains that: “Mess is a problem of humanity. Domestica is the concern of all. A man hiring a male cleaner would be seen as a simple act of employment.”

Many American women of all income levels desperately need help managing their family’s domestic affairs. Moran and many others argue that if women are earning their own money, they should be free to choose how to spend it—including getting out from under the burden of what used to comprise a woman’s worth: child care, keeping a tidy home, and tending to elderly parents.

At the time, I was working 80 to 90 hours a week in my brand-new job, earning the majority of the household income. I was exhausted, and arguments about chores were a serious drag on my recent marriage. Using some of my new, relative affluence to outsource one of my least favorite and most time-consuming responsibilities seemed like an obvious sanity saver—to me, at least.

But my husband said he’d “feel bad” if we hired help. “You’d feel bad paying someone to do this as their job, but you don’t feel bad about me doing this for free on the weekends?” I asked incredulously. He capitulated. Four years later, we were both on the same page about hiring a nanny when I went back to work after giving birth to our son. For starters, given the crazy imbalance of childcare supply and demand, we had no other option.

Deep down though, I share my husband’s uneasiness with the patchwork care system in this country, in which those who can afford to independently hire domestic workers do—largely from a pool of women of color working in unregulated environments for less than a living wage.

A national study in 2012 found that 95 percent of domestic workers are women. One reason for that gender imbalance is that housework and carework was (and to an infuriating extent still is) thought of as “women’s work” done for the family for free and invisible to the outside world. If domestic work wasn’t done by the woman of the house and her female kin, historically in this country, it was done by slaves or indentured servants, also for free, without regulation, and invisible.

For a stark reminder of how blurry the relationship between slavery and modern domestic work can be in modern America, look no further than “My Family’s Slave”—an Atlantic article by Alex Tizon about the unpaid and abused woman who tirelessly cooked, cleaned, and cared for his family for most of her life, without any of Tizon’s neighbors or friends protesting. Or consider a recent Politico investigation into the U.S. State Department’s au pair program, which is marketed to young women in different countries as a way to experience American culture while working as in-house nannies; the report unearthed allegations of workers being denied food, forced to sleep in the laundry room, and required to work far beyond the 45 hour weeks stipulated in their contract (for a weekly wage of less than $200).

“The domestic work industry is very deeply rooted in the legacy of slavery in this country,” says Ilana Berger, director of Hand in Hand, a national organization devoted to ensuring individual employers of domestic workers treat their employees ethically. During the Great Migration of the early 20th century, millions of descendants of slavery sought work in the commercial centers of the North, where black women soon made up the bulk of domestic workers, and millions more continued to work in homes in the South, doing for a pittance what their forebears had been forced to do for free.

Berger says domestic workers “were literally left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was passed in the 1930s,” in an effort to appease Southern Democrats. Black women and other women of color still comprise more than half of the domestic workforce, according to the 2012 study, with immigrants comprising about 46 percent, many of whom are “noncitizens.” Most of these jobs are considered low-wage. There are some agencies, especially for home health aides, that help to standardize treatment and pay, but otherwise many workers are hired and paid informally by individuals with no management experience and without any external oversight.

According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, racism, domestic workers’ low economic status (and potentially their immigration status) can all lead to exploitation. Common problems include sub-minimum wages, no overtime pay, no sick time or pay, employers forgetting or refusing to pay, sexual harassment, and physical and verbal abuse on the job. These women—working by themselves, often caring for small children or incapacitated adults—have few places to turn if they feel abused or cheated.

While Hand in Hand and their sister organization NDWA believe situations like the Tizon family’s or the au pair scandal are worst-case scenarios, the normless and unregulated nature of domestic work creates an environment ripe for exploitation, whether intentional or not.

“When you’re hiring somebody, you’re often in a time of crisis in your life,” says Berger. “You’ve just had a baby, you’re trying to juggle this new being and your family and your work and your life; or a parent all of a sudden becomes ill and you have to hire someone to care for them. You’re just not always in your best mind and you’re busy and nobody comes and knocks on your door and is like, ‘here’s the HR manual and the personnel policy.’”

Hand in Hand works to change that by offering resources like a checklist and pledge for responsible employers, instructions for calculating and providing benefits and bonuses, and other initiatives—like the recently rolled out Sanctuary Homes campaign, which organizes employers around immigration and racial profiling concerns.

Sometimes the employee-employer problems Hand in Hand sees are fairly straightforward. “When [we] get bonkers questions like ‘I decided to go to Mexico next week, I’m not going to need the nanny, so I don’t have to pay her, right?’ We’re like, ‘would that work for you if your boss just decided to take off for a week? Would you still expect to get paid?’” says Berger.

But often the issues are more nuanced. “Just figuring out the dynamic of what this relationship was supposed to be was confusing,” says Flora, a therapist in New York, of hiring her daughter’s nanny. “How do I respect her job, but also not seem cold? It is different than your boss in your office, it is much more personal.”

While Flora knew that drafting a standard work agreement confirming hours, duties, and pay for her nanny was a good idea, “I felt very uncomfortable for some reason,” she says. “I thought she was going to be turned off by [the contract]. But as time went on, I realized it was the opposite, she felt that the contract gave her job more validity.”

Even things like inviting your nanny for dinner can be difficult for both parties. Should you pay her for her time? Can she trust you to not take it personally if she declines? While the woman cleaning your home, minding your children, or reminding your parents to take their meds may seem like family, even those warm feelings can sour the work relationship if they lead to an employer asking for favors from their employee, or forgetting that the employee has a family of her own to care for, too.

Employers need to do all they can to ensure that they’re creating stable, safe work environments in their homes and paying their employees fairly. Domestic care is a fast-growing industry, and not only for the wealthy: Hand in Hand’s recent survey of New Yorkers shows that about one-fifth of those surveyed employed domestic help, mainly in home health care and housekeeping, with about 17 percent employing individual childcare providers. In terms of income, the majority of employers had household incomes of $99,999 or less, while about 20 percent of respondents had household incomes of more than $150,000. Many survey respondents felt that their employees deserved to be paid more, but many also said that they actually needed more childcare and eldercare than they could afford.

New York was the first of eight states—including, most recently, Nevada—to pass a domestic worker bill of rights to fill in the federal regulation gaps about overtime pay, protection from harassment and discrimination, and paid leave, among other issues. But Hand in Hand recently found that less than 10 percent of New Yorkers knew of their state’s legislation. Flora pointed out that, even in New York, “There’s nothing really forcing those employers to actually implement fair rights.” Even things like advocating for a higher minimum wage and paying workers “on the books” can be fraught, as not all workers can or want to be part of such formal arrangements, and not all employers can afford it.

While I think Moran and others are right in claiming that if the status quo were men employing male cleaners and caregivers, they likely wouldn’t fret much about what hiring domestic help signals about their own worth or cultural sensitivity, that doesn’t give economically privileged women a pass. I don’t think we should feel good about engaging in a low-wage industry with a history of abuse that extends straight back to slavery. That doesn’t mean we can’t fundamentally change the power dynamic, starting today in our own homes. There are so many structural issues to address, including but not limited to, compassionate immigration reform, a sea change on discrimination against women and especially women of color, a comprehensive public-sector response to child and eldercare, and household chore equality. But, unless Margaret Atwood’s terrifying Republic of Gilead emerges and turns back the clock a few centuries on the women’s movement, paid domestic work is here to stay—and vastly preferable to unpaid domestic work. By being not just employers but advocates and allies, we can insist careworkers finally and unanimously receive the respect they deserve.