Editor’s Note: Ai-jen Poo is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Dawn Gearhart is director of NDWA Gig Worker Advocates. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
When the pandemic shut down the US economy, the domestic work sector was devastated. The nannies, house cleaners and caregivers who provide essential services in our homes were suddenly unable to go to work, finding themselves without jobs, without paid leave and with no idea when — or if — their jobs would return.
Before the pandemic, most domestic workers already earned extremely low pay, and did not have health care or access to basic benefits. As a result, these workers are among the millions of women — and specifically women of color — who have borne the brunt of the pandemic and its economic fallout. After a year of dramatic losses in life and livelihoods, their work is more important and more difficult than ever. Domestic workers deserve jobs that offer good pay and benefits and provide them with safety and a voice at work so they can care for their own families even as they are caring for others. That’s why now, as domestic workers return to work, the nation must look to create better jobs through legislation, and through private agreements between companies and worker advocates.
The domestic worker movement has been fighting for more than a decade to improve conditions for cleaners, nannies and home care workers. The nation saw some progress in 2010, when New York led the way by becoming the first state to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, legislation to protect and include domestic workers in state labor laws. Since then, 10 states and two municipalities, Seattle and Philadelphia, have passed legislation, creating new rights, such as protection from discrimination and paid time off. And, in 2019, then-Senator Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal introduced a federal bill, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act. The federal bill includes domestic workers in common workplace rights and protections and calls for paid sick days, meal and rest breaks, fair scheduling, support for survivors of sexual harassment, and grants for training.
These laws are essential, although notoriously hard to enforce, because the workforce is spread out behind millions of doors in homes across the country. And legislation that has a path forward in some states may not in others, especially Southern “right-to-work” states, which are states that have enacted laws to make it difficult to form or join a union and where labor laws favor employers, which makes it challenging for workers to earn higher wages, or gain new rights and benefits.
Private agreements between companies and worker advocates are a strategy we need to pursue to make work better for domestic workers. With the economy reopening, there’s a renewed sense of urgency to ensure that domestic workers are not only able to return to work, but that we continue to improve the quality of that work. That’s why we are proud to announce a pilot program to improve jobs for house cleaners in the gig economy.
Handy, an online platform that helps connect cleaners with people who need services in their homes, and the NDWA Gig Worker Advocates, an organization founded to advocate on behalf of domestic workers in the gig economy, are launching a first-of-its kind pilot program. Focused in three states that have been notoriously tough terrain for worker advocates — Kentucky, Indiana and Florida — the program gives house cleaners on Handy in these states a minimum pay of $15 an hour, paid time off — paid for by Handy — and occupational accident insurance for workers on the job. And, it creates a formal process whereby house cleaners on Handy can discuss working condition concerns directly with decision-makers at Handy. The program is established and enforced by a private agreement — not legislation — and enforceable by contract law.
For years, gig economy companies and worker advocates have struggled to find agreement. This pilot brings the two parties together, with concrete action toward a shared goal: to create better work for domestic workers. There is more work to be done across the country, but Handy deserves credit for coming to the table with labor advocates to provide workers with more benefits, greater voice and higher pay, especially in states where private agreements are a clear path to greater economic security for domestic workers. In light of the numbers of women and women of color who have lost work in the pandemic, and the pre-existing epidemic of low-paid work that made us so vulnerable to crisis, we hope to see more innovation — and action — in this spirit.
The future of work should not be one where workers lack the benefits and protections they need to stay safe. Every worker deserves respect and dignity, especially those who come into our homes and make everything else possible.