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Domestic work is honorable, has value

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

Last year I helped lead a standing-room only conversation about domestic workers at the Levine Museum of the New South. The conversation was inspired by the book and movie, “The Help,” the story of black domestics and their employers in the South during the heyday of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The story laid bare the shameful working conditions many domestics endured – long hours, low wages and emotional and physical disparagement and mistreatment.

More than half a century has passed, and things have changed. But to our continuing shame in this country, not enough has changed for domestic workers. That’s the crux of a new study from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work” (find it at www.domesticworkers.org) shines an ugly spotlight on the treatment of a group of workers who are central to American life – providing care for multitudes of families and enabling others to do their jobs while their homes and families are well cared for.

But, notes the report, “despite their central role in the economy, domestic workers are often employed in substandard jobs. Working behind closed doors, beyond the reach of personnel policies, and often without employment contracts, they are subject to the whims of their employers. Some employers are terrific, generous and understanding. Others, unfortunately, are demanding, exploitative and abusive.”

The report goes on to document what most of us already know: Domestic work is largely women’s work. And like in “The Help,” it is tied in this country to the legacy of slavery. Many domestic workers historically have been black though today a substantial number are immigrants – some of them undocumented.

Much of that explains the disadvantages under which domestic workers labor. The fact that “women’s work” has traditionally been undervalued in the U.S. sets the stage for persistently low pay. Still, the survey results are an embarrassing documentation of the continuing mistreatment of workers in this country.

Consider:

• 70 percent of domestic workers are paid less than $13 an hour. That’s $520 a week.

23 percent are paid below their state minimum wage; 67 percent of live-in workers are paid below the state minimum, making a median $6.15 an hour.

• 48 percent of workers are paid an hourly wage inadequate to support a family.

• Domestic workers rarely receive employment benefits, the study said.

• Less than 2 percent receive retirement or pension benefits from their primary employer.

• Less than 9 percent work for employers who pay into Social Security.

• 65 percent do not have health insurance, and only 4 percent receive employer-provided insurance.

And with no control over their work conditions, usually with no employment contract, many are taken advantage of. Thirty-five percent report working long hours without breaks; 25 percent of live-in workers had responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Among workers who are fired from domestic work, 23 percent are fired for complaining about work conditions; 18 percent are fired for protesting violations of a contract or agreement.

Domestic work is also dangerous – 38 percent of workers suffered from work-related wrist, shoulder, elbow, or hip pain in the past 12 months; 29 percent of caregivers suffered a back injury.

And finally, some domestic workers are disrespected and abused on the job. Many workers said they often endure verbal, psychological, and physical abuse on the job; 91 percent of workers who encountered problems did not complain because they were afraid of losing their jobs. 85 percent of undocumented workers did not complain because they feared their immigration status would be used against them.

Because the poor are often stereotyped as lazy and undeserving, some people will snort at these statistics or casually dismiss them because, after all, aren’t the poor responsible for the situation they find themselves in? If they would but apply themselves they would be able to lift themselves out of circumstances in which they are at the mercy of bad or irresponsible employers.

That view, of course, ignores the fact that these workers whose pay will always be on the low end of the scale provide valuable – some would say irreplaceable – service. It is a service many families can not do without. Domestic work not only enables the work of so many others, it can help keep families intact and functioning by relieving the home-work pressures on those who are working outside the home.

This is honest and honorable work. For it, domestic workers deserve a fair wage and workplace protections.

This report provides some recommendations including that domestic workers be included in the minimum wage standards of all states and that they have equal rights to state and federal overtime pay that other workers enjoy. The report also points out the vital role of employers in improving conditions for domestic workers. Many already are doing the right things. But others fail to pay proper wages and provide suitable work environments and don’t even display basic decency in communication. It’s time for employers to do some soul searching and make behavioral changes.

Worldwide, an estimated 53 million to 100 million women and men perform work in or for households – about 1.7 million are in the U.S. Their work has value. We must show with our actions we understand that.

Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Write to her at the Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, N.C. 28230-0308. Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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