Equal Pay/Fair Wage

Domestic Workers' Champ Envisions Win-Win Future

Friday, August 8, 2014

After Massachusetts' passage of a domestic workers' bill of rights, Ai-jen Poo sees "more states on the horizon." She's also looking to build support for subsidies and tax breaks to help families pay for better-trained caregivers.

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Ai-jen Poo
Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Credit: Jobs with Justice on Flickr, under Creative Commons

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--In July, Massachusetts became the fourth state after New York, California and Hawaii to pass a home care workers' bill of rights, which requires such things as unemployment insurance and overtime for workers.

That's all great news to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a network of nannies, housekeepers and caretakers of elderly people that has been working since 2007 to advance public awareness of the important role these workers play in society and to advocate for better work conditions.

In two question-and-answer sessions in late July with Women's eNews, Ai-jen Poo, the group's director, talked about the current state of caregiver work and the network's efforts.

Female domestic workers were recently guaranteed eight weeks of maternity leave under Massachusetts' Domestic Works Bill of Rights if they're full-time employees. Were you part of that effort? How important is this for the workers you represent?

It'll be the first time that the domestic workers of Massachusetts have these rights. They'll be able to say "These things are my right under the law now," so they'll have more of a foundation in their negotiations and their communication with their employers. And if there is a violation, they can go to either one of our affiliation organizations or to the Department of Labor and seek recourse. There's now a whole new set of protections.

The Massachusetts Domestic Worker Coalition really led that effort and they're part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. We supported them through helping them with building a coalition [and] with strategy and with media. We supported all aspects of the campaign.

Does the law apply to all domestic workers in Massachusetts?

It applies to all domestic workers, even the undocumented.

This domestic workers' bill of rights in Massachusetts is the fourth in the nation. What states are next?

We're working in Connecticut [and] Illinois for next year. In 2016, California, maybe Colorado, Oregon, Washington--there are a whole bunch of states on the horizon.

What are some of the concrete benefits that workers have gotten so far from the passage of these bills of rights? One or two prime examples?

In New York state we won paid days off for domestic workers and in a number of states we've won protection from discrimination and harassment, which is very common because [domestic workers are] a predominately women workforce. And workers compensation is something that we've won, if someone's injured on the job, which is also very common if you're lifting strollers or elders.

The new federal labor protections for home health care workers take effect in January 2015. What's included in those protections and how were you involved in getting that done?

It brings home care workers under minimum wage and overtime protection under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act; 1.8 million who were previously excluded because they were considered companions as opposed to full-time workers.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance and our Caring Across Generations campaigns were involved in raising awareness about the importance of this change; we submitted thousands of public comments from workers . . . a lot of home care workers did public speaking to raise awareness. It was a huge community and coalition effort. It applies to all caregivers and home care workers.

Is there an overlap between the state bills of rights for domestic workers and the federal labor protections that will become effective in January?

The regulatory change that goes into effect in January is primarily covering home care workers who care for the elderly and people with disabilities.

State by state, we not only represent elder caregivers, we also represent nannies and house keepers and, state by state, that workforce faces all different kinds of exclusions from protection; from discrimination and harassment to maternity leave to sick days and sick leave. We're going to be advocating for [these] protections to really bring this workforce out of the shadows and into the 21st century.

The Supreme Court ruled in June in Harris v. Quinn that unions cannot compel home health aides to pay a certain portion of union dues for a program called Fair Share, which covers the costs of a bargaining representative. How does this opinion impact the movement?

It makes it harder for home care workers in Illinois to have a strong union . . . I think this decision will not in any way deter them from building a way out of poverty and asserting the dignity of their work.

How do workers who contract privately claim their rights under these new protections?

If their rights are being violated they can seek redress and file a complaint through the state or federal departments of labor. It still does require that people advocate for their own rights and assert them, but that's true in many workplaces.

Is it easier to make a claim if you are employed through an agency? Are you better protected?

Some would say yes, because you have other workers who are working for the agency and you can work together, but I think it depends on the situation.

You have an initiative that was launched in 2011 called Caring Across Generations that connects families, seniors and people with disabilities with the workers and their families. It sounds like you are building a voting bloc. If so, what would you want this "caring coalition" to achieve? What's the vision?

I would love for this coalition to achieve a whole new framework for care where families and consumer with disabilities and seniors have really high-quality care that's accessible in the home and the community, and making it affordable. Whether it's through subsidies or a tax credit or through registries that are supported through public-private partnerships--whatever is actually expanding access to high-quality affordable care for families and also improving wages and benefits for the workforce, paid holidays and paid sick days.

A voting bloc, absolutely--we call it the caring majority that we're building. We're building a huge movement that connects the sandwich generation, women voters, with senior votes, with millennials who really care about their grandparents and want a good safety net, with the workforce.

We are about to have the largest older population we've ever had in the history of this county and you say that we need a win-win solution that both creates more access to good care for families and more access to good jobs for the home care and domestic workforce. What exactly does that win-win solution look like?

For example, offering training to workers where we can actually improve the quality of care for people with Alzheimer's or dealing with chronic illness--workforce development that really improves quality and care, as well as potentially better working conditions for the workforce.

[It also means] things like tax credits for employers who pay a living wage to their workers, caregiver tax credits that incentivize better wages. Because a lot of employers want to pay better wages and they feel they can't afford it and this would help economically.

Why is this issue important to you?

My grandmother, who is my personal heroine, is 87. What makes me really happy is that she's able to still live independently in her apartment . . . because she has the support of a home care provider. That relationship has been so important in my grandma's quality of life and also my family's, knowing that this person, who we all love and care for so much, is able to still live life on her own terms.

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