Care Work Should Be Public-Sector Work

Today, thousands of private families control the wages and conditions of domestic workers in the United States. But work like childcare, eldercare, and home health care should be provided by the state, and by union workers.

Members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance gathering to support the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act on July 19, 2019. (National Domestic Workers Alliance / Twitter)

Kamala Harris and Pramila Jayapal have proposed a “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act” that, among other things, would create a Domestic Worker Wage and Standards Board. This board would provide an agency in the government for “domestic workers” such as childcare workers, eldercare workers, nurses, home health aides, nannies, butlers, chauffeurs, and so on — accounting for about 2.5 million workers, according to their estimates.

Harris and Jayapal’s bill is the result of years of organizing on the part of domestic workers, who have successfully made their issues a national talking point. The board addresses an inherent challenge to improving domestic workers’ conditions: their isolation in individual homes and the barriers that raises to bargaining.

What it doesn’t address is whether domestic workers’ employment should be so tied to individual families in the first place. Much of this work, such as childcare and eldercare, rightly belongs in the public sector. To eliminate the worst abuses of the system, it’s time we talk about changing its basic structure. That means socializing this type of care, bringing these workers into the public sector, and drastically improving their ability to organize.

The Argument for the Board

Advocates for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act argue that domestic employees are typically hired by households, unlike most workers who are hired by private firms or the government. As a consequence, domestic workers often toil in isolation from one another and find themselves at higher risk for wage theft, sexual harassment, and general exploitation.

Compounding this isolation and vulnerability, domestic workers are excluded from pathways to unionization, like the National Labor Relations Board. To quote the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA):

the term ‘employee’ [ . . . ] shall not include any individual employed as an agricultural laborer, or in the domestic service of any family or person at his home, or any individual employed by his parent or spouse, or any individual having the status of an independent contractor, or any individual employed as a supervisor, or any individual employed by an employer subject to the Railway Labor Act [ . . . ]

While domestic workers might stand to gain tremendously from organizing, their working conditions often mean that even if organizing were legal, it would be impractical. As other writers have pointed out, simply extending the NLRA to include domestic workers and other excluded groups, like agricultural employees, might not accomplish much. For that reason, Harris and Jayapal’s bill does not extend the NLRA’s protections and does not rely on the bargaining power of domestic workers to improve their working conditions.

The Domestic Worker Wage and Standards Board

Before talking about how the board would work procedurally, it’s useful to know a little bit about its proposed structure. As proposed, it would include five representatives from domestic worker advocacy organizations and five representatives from employer associations. The secretary of labor would have one seat to occupy or allocate.

In sectoral bargaining systems, seats representing employees are allocated proportionately to employee representatives. But since this bill offers no pathway for domestic workers to unionize, it cannot allocate seats in this way. Instead, the board’s representatives would be solicited through a competitive bidding process.

The bill requires the board to convene every three years to discuss and vote on new wages and standards for domestic workers. After voting, the board would formally submit their recommendations to the secretary of labor. Then, the secretary could opt to:

  1. submit recommendations to Congress,
  2. implement recommendations through the rule-making process, or
  3. do neither.

Should the secretary decide to do neither, they would be required to provide a written rationale for that choice. This means that while many of the standards provided for in the act are binding (e.g., written contracts, inflation pay increases), the Domestic Worker Wage and Standards Board’s determinations would be suggestive, not authoritative.

Domestic Work and Domestic Workers

As written, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act focuses on one group of workers — those employed by households — and tries to create a mechanism for improving their wages, standards, and protections. Its premise seems to be that where the work is being performed matters more than what kind of work is being done.

But from a policy standpoint, it is in many ways more productive to compare domestic workers to their equivalents in the public and private sectors.

Consider some of the jobs listed earlier: childcare workers, eldercare workers, nurses, home health aides, and nannies. If we simply focus on where these workers do their jobs, then they do have a lot in common with butlers, private gardeners, and chauffeurs. If we consider what kinds of work they do, however, it’s clear that a large number of American domestic employees perform “social care” work. But workers who do this kind of work in the public and private sectors already have a way to improve wages, standards, and protections: unions. What’s more, in the public and private sectors, social care workers have access to labor boards, the Wage and Hour Division, and a whole host of other labor protections for concerted activities and occupational health standards.

Comparing domestic social care workers to their public and private sector equivalents raises totally different questions from the ones we started off asking. Instead of debating what mechanisms policymakers can create to raise wages, standards, and protections for domestic workers, the relevant questions become: Why are there so many domestic workers? And why are so many social care workers employed by families?

In more egalitarian countries, like the Nordic countries, there are two factors that keep the number of domestic workers relatively slim. First, strong unions and public ownership of capital keep income differentials very narrow. Narrow income differentials mean that, in these countries, it’s basically impossible to have a large domestic workforce because nobody makes enough to pay a whole other salary out of their own income. The existence of a large domestic workforce is, then, a strong indicator of income and wealth inequality.

Second, social care is provided socially in the Nordics (e.g., the welfare state provides childcare and eldercare). If the United States implemented any number of family benefit programs, from Matt Bruenig’s Family Fun Pack to Elizabeth Warren’s childcare benefit, then many workers who are currently domestic employees would be relocated into the public sector, where they would be able to create unions.

Thinking about the kinds of work that domestic workers are doing suggests a different route for tackling the challenges that they face. Counterintuitively, this route questions whether or not domestic work should exist at all in our society. Instead, some kinds of jobs that are currently performed by domestic workers (e.g., childcare work, eldercare work) should be provided socially — and workers doing those jobs domestically should be shifted into the public sector through an expansion of the welfare state.

While other domestic workers, like chauffeurs and butlers, could be covered by a centralized, sectoral board, it’s likely that these sorts of jobs would disappear if the United States became a more equal place for living and working. In the meantime, millions of domestic workers continue to toil in unfair conditions. While they need protections, it’s important to make sure their protections don’t ossify or enshrine the system that puts them at greater risk to begin with.