The 116th Congress will look very different than any previous Congress, with 126 women, more racial and ethnic diversity and openly LGBTQ members than ever before, and twenty-eight moms of young children. With this diversity comes unprecedented experience in caregiving represented in the halls of the Capitol, along with a firsthand knowledge of workplace harassment, pay discrimination, and other gender and racial justice issues. As the new Congress considers how to create and invest in good jobs for the future that take into account the diverse women in the workplace, a smart place to start is making sure that domestic workers—the nannies, home health care workers, and housekeepers who are among the most vulnerable in our workforce—have basic rights and protections and the opportunity to achieve economic security now and in the future.
About 10,000 people are turning sixty-five every day in the United States. Home-based elder care is already the single fastest growing occupation in the U.S. economy due to this rapidly growing elder population. Women, who traditionally provided home care for both children and older relatives, are turning to professionals to meet their family’s care needs—often for both children and aging parents at the same time. As a result, care jobs represent one of the largest growing occupations in our nation’s workforce. Today, nine in ten home care workers are women, and they comprise a disproportionate share of the workforce’s women of color. Ensuring that these are good jobs where women—and men—can work in safety and dignity, care for themselves and their families, make ends meet, and get ahead will have an impact directly on this growing workforce and also raise the bar for everyone.
Over 2 million women care for our nation’s homes and families. This work supports millions of people. And yet it is some of the most invisible in our economy. Nannies, home health care workers, and housekeepers have historically been excluded from basic labor protections. Without these protections, many domestic workers tolerate low or no pay, no health care or retirement security, sexual harassment, and other abusive and exploitative situations. Even when they do have legal rights and protections, this workforce disproportionately composed of women of color and immigrants often faces systemic barriers, including our broken immigration system, that keep them from exercising their rights.
Despite these barriers, domestic workers are powerful and have been exercising their power by organizing in their communities. To date, this has led to eight states adopting domestic workers’ bills of rights: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, and Oregon. In July 2018, Seattle became the first municipality to adopt such a bill. These bills address crucial issues ranging from protections against discrimination and harassment, minimum wage and overtime pay, the right to rest periods, and health and safety on the job.
These state and local bills are a start, but not enough. Domestic workers deserve to have rights and protections regardless of the region of the country in which they live and work. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, a leader the issue, plans to build on these successes with a comprehensive vision for the country to ensure that every nanny, housekeeper, and home care worker in the United States can earn a decent living, have a voice at work, support their health and their families, and work in safety and with dignity. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) plan to introduce this Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in the new Congress.
The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights will address the historic exclusions from labor and civil rights laws, create new rights and protections, pilot some innovative ideas like co-enforcement, and ensure that all of the rights and protections have behind them the teeth of strong anti-retaliation protections and legal tools.
This kind of a comprehensive vision for domestic workers will not only create fairness and opportunity for the workers who make all other work possible, but it will also improve the quality of care, support gender and racial equality by improving pay and working conditions for this disproportionately women-of-color workforce, and reduce economic inequality.
With more women in Congress than ever before, and women marching, voting, and leading the most powerful social movements of our time, including #MeToo, Times Up, and Families Belong Together, this is a unique moment to shine a spotlight on the way our laws treat some of the most vulnerable women in our nation. The next Congress should prioritize the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, to value women, invest in care, and create good jobs for the future.
This commentary was supported by the Women’s Economic Justice Project, a NoVo Foundation-funded initiative sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance.