Rebeca Ibarra: I'm Rebeca Ibarra, host of WNYC and NPR's Consider This, in for Tanzina Vega. This is The Takeaway. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the US labor market over the past year but there's a workforce especially vulnerable and largely unseen during the economic downturn, domestic workers.
Ai-jen Poo: Domestic workers cover nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers, basically anyone who works in the private home setting, providing caregiving or cleaning services.
Rebeca Ibarra: That's Ai-jen Poo.
Ai-jen Poo: I'm the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations.
Rebeca Ibarra: She says there's an estimated 2.5 million domestic workers in the US, the majority of whom are women of color and immigrants. Many domestic workers say they've lost their jobs because of the pandemic and they've also had to weigh the health and safety risks associated with actually going to work. They often lack the same access to personal protective equipment that other frontline workers have. We spoke with Ai-jen poo about the pandemic's toll on domestic workers and what it's meant for how we think about this workforce.
Ai-jen Poo: It's a workforce that we rarely think about, and I think in the pandemic, has become seen as more essential as more and more families are just really struggling with their caregiving challenges, whether it's childcare or children home from school or parents in nursing homes that have been ravaged by the COVID virus.
Having to figure out alternative options and meanwhile, we are in a situation where even before the pandemic, we actually had a shortage of workers in home care because the wages were so low for this workforce that people couldn't sustain doing this work. The average annual wage for home care worker in America is $17,000 per year.
Rebeca Ibarra: People often think about childcare in this context but a large portion of these jobs are actually in elder care, right?
Ai-jen Poo: That's right. Our caregivers provide caregiving services across the lifespan. There are nannies but there are also home care workers like the essential workers who've been working on the front lines through the pandemic, providing a lifeline to our elders and people with disabilities, who are living in their homes. Oftentimes they're the only human contact that people have in the pandemic. These are some of the populations that are most vulnerable to the COVID virus itself. It's just been really essential that the home care workers are out there making sure our loved ones are safe.
Rebeca Ibarra: Do we know why this workforce is made mostly of women of color and immigrants?
Ai-jen Poo: The work itself of caregiving has always been associated with women and assumed or taken for granted that women will do this work. The truth of it is in this country, we don't have any real care infrastructure. We just assume, we take it for granted that women will figure it out. What we do have is this invisible workforce of mostly women of color who do this work as a profession but are so undervalued and unseen in our economy.
It's this deep irony that the people that we're counting on to take care of us in our families can't take care of their own doing this work. It's always been the case as a profession. Domestic work has always been associated with black women and women of color, immigrant women of color. In the 1930s when our nation's labor laws were put into place, Southern members of Congress would not support the labor laws that were a part of the new deal, if they included protections for domestic workers and also farmworkers.
Both groups of workers who are mostly Black at the time, that racial exclusion has basically shaped the way that we've protected or failed to protect this workforce throughout our history. It has remained one that has really been one of the main sources of income and jobs for many women of color throughout the history of this country. We have not yet taken the big leap to value it for the true significance it plays in our economy and in our families.
I think that coming out of this pandemic as we think about what it looks like to recover, to truly have an economic recovery that lifts up the people who've been directly impacted and impacted the hardest that we have to put these care workers and our caregiving families front and center in our solutions.
Rebeca Ibarra: What has the COVID-19 pandemic meant for these workers financially? Have they seen major job losses?
Ai-jen Poo: Immediately as the stay-at-home orders came down, there were dramatic losses in jobs and income. I remember in the second week of the stay-at-home orders, we had a Zoom call with some of our members and one of our members held up her phone to the camera to show us that there was literally 1 cent left in her bank account. That was a year ago. By definition, this is work that has to be done in person. [chuckles]
You're immediately caught in an impossible choice between putting food on the table and keeping yourself and your family safe. For those who continued to work as essential workers, they were paying out of pocket for safer modes of transportation to and from work to minimize exposure, paying out of pocket for PPE, didn't have sick days, didn't have hazard pay, didn't have healthcare.
Rebeca Ibarra: In addition to that economic impact, domestic workers have also had to worry about their physical health given the risk of exposure on the job. What can you tell us about that? What safety concerns have been top of mind.
Ai-jen Poo: Making sure that you are keeping yourself safe and that you are walking into safe environments as you do your work, meanwhile, making sure that your children who are home from school and trying to navigate online learning have the care and support that they need. It's been a real challenge and 80% of domestic workers came into the pandemic without a single paid sick day. There hasn't been a real access to the safety net that would assist this workforce in keeping themselves safe and healthy through a pandemic like this one.
Rebeca Ibarra: Why are domestic workers so often denied basic workplace protections? Protection from harassment benefits like healthcare minimum wage laws.
Ai-jen Poo: I think that we culturally still have not adequately recognized and valued this work as real work. We still treat it as less than a real profession. I think it's partly because the work itself has been associated with women and also because of who does it. Black and brown women, immigrant women who are also devalued in our society and in our culture. We still refer to this profession as help when it is a full-time job for millions of workers and millions of families rely upon the income of our caregiving professionals and our domestic workers who do this work.
It is such valuable work. What could be more valuable than uplifting and upholding the dignity of our elders as they age and become more fragile? Making sure that people with disabilities have the ability to live independently in their communities and live full dignified lives or nurturing the human potential of a child?
These roles are absolutely essential and I would even say fundamental infrastructure. We usually think about infrastructure as bricks and mortar, bridges, tunnels, broadband. Now that we're talking about economic recovery, there's a lot of talk about infrastructure, but this is essential infrastructure.
It is care that makes all other work possible. It's part of the reason why we're hemorrhaging women from the workforce right now because they are grappling, struggling to figure out how to manage care without an adequate care infrastructure in this country. It's everyone from parents to daughters and sons of aging loved ones who need support.
Rebeca Ibarra: What kind of protections have we seen put in place for domestic workers since the pandemic started and what else is needed?
Ai-jen Poo: I have to say, Rebecca, that I don't have good news to report about what has been put into place in the pandemic, actually not very much. Even some of the federal relief that has been made available has not reached most domestic workers because of their immigration status or because they work in a cash economy and are non-traditional workers.
Even the minimum relief that has been available has not reached domestic workers. We just did a survey of domestic workers around the country and found that it is at a 40% unemployment rate.
It's a full-blown depression. It's not hyperbole. It is a full-blown depression and we need protections. We need better wages. We need sick days, paid leave. We need a big investment in our caregiving programs, putting money into the Medicaid system so that we can raise wages for this home care workforce, putting money into our childcare systems. These are all essential steps that we need to take to address the incredible struggles that this workforce of women are facing every day. It's a huge opportunity because it means that if we have a strong care infrastructure in this country, that is going to enable everybody else to get back to work.
Care jobs are job enabling jobs. They not only benefit the workers and their families but they make it possible for all of us to work knowing that the most important aspects of our lives, our loved ones, and our homes are in good hands.
Rebeca Ibarra: Politically s this an issue that gets support at all from both sides of the partisan divide or has caregiving also become politicized?
Ai-jen Poo: Caregiving is a universally supported issue across Democratic and Republican voters across the country. Over 70% of Republican voters support big public investments in our caregiving systems to support our caregivers and to expand access to services that people urgently need. Everyone has a care story. Former first lady, Rosalynn Carter used to say she has a famous saying that there are only four kinds of people in the world. People who are caregivers or will be caregivers, people who need care or will need care.
I think that people understand that more than ever before coming out of this pandemic. It has helped us see that this is not something that is just a personal burden and responsibility.
If we can't figure it out, it's because we failed or we did something wrong. We actually need infrastructure and programs and public policies to support our ability to take care of our families while we're working. It's just a simple awakening and realization that has been catalyzed by this pandemic that is frankly long overdue and I think has to be central in how we think about economic recovery.
Rebeca Ibarra: Ai-jen Poo is the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the director of Caring Across Generations. Ai-jen, thank you so much for joining us.
Ai-jen Poo: Thank you for having me, Rebecca.
Rebeca Ibarra: Are you a domestic worker? What has the pandemic meant for your financial situation and your health? Tell us about your experience by sending a voice memo to email@example.com or by calling 877-869-8253.
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