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REPORT: Domestic Workers Vulnerable to Poor Working Conditions

November 29, 2012

The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the Center for Urban Economic Development (CUED), University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Data Center have released a long-awaited report that calls attention to the plight of domestic workers: the nannies, housekeepers, and elder caregivers working in private households who make it possible for millions of men and women to go to work each day.

In Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work, the authors report that domestic workers are at the mercy of their employers. While some have good working arrangements, the “invisible” nature of domestic work — performed in private homes behind closed doors and without formal contracts or accountability — makes these workers especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Individuals in this largely female, immigrant workforce feel especially powerless to protest unfair or unsafe working conditions, the authors explain.

Substandard Jobs

The report summarizes findings from interviews with over 2,000 domestic workers in 14 cities employed directly by the households where they work.

Findings support the notion that these jobs are substandard:

  • Low wages — One in four domestic workers surveyed was paid less than minimum wage
  • Few benefits — Only 4 percent had employer-provided health insurance, and only 65 percent had any health coverage
  • Unmet basic needs — 37 percent had to pay their rent or mortgage late in the prior year, and 20 percent reported being unable to afford food for their households in the prior month
  • No employment contracts — 35 percent reported working long hours with no breaks
  • High injury rates — 29 percent of caregivers reported back injuries in the year prior

The authors — NDWA Research Director Linda Burnham and Nik Theodore, associate professor at the UIC and former director of CUED — recommend implementing policies that:

  • extend basic labor protections to domestic workers;
  • increase supports for low-wage workers generally; and
  • provide better supports for families with caregiving responsibilities.

Home Care Aides

Although the report focuses on the “grey market” of home care — privately employed caregivers for elders and individuals with disabilities — many of these same issues also apply to direct-care workers providing service through public programs, such as Medicaid.

“Home care workers in public programs are paid a median wage of only $9.71/hour, have no guaranteed benefits like health insurance or sick leave, and are not covered under federal minimum wage and overtime protections,” said PHI National Policy Director Steve Edelstein.

“While this is an important study on some of the least visible, most vulnerable workers in our economy, substandard employment conditions exist for many more home care workers in plain view: those with formal agency employers paid with taxpayer dollars,” Edelstein said.

— by Abby Marquand, PHI Policy Research Analyst

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