When Priscilla Smith found herself in Brazil this past May, speaking at an international conference of domestic workers, the distance from her life as a caregiver in North Carolina seemed almost too extraordinary to believe.
“It was like a dream. I was extremely nervous,” she tells In These Times. “But to know that these women are fighting for the same causes from all around the world [and] to see how passionate and strong they are gave me a sense of pride to know that I was chosen by an organization as powerful as [the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA)] to represent them.”
In recent years, Smith had thrown herself completely into this work, fighting alongside her fellow domestic workers for the treatment and benefits they know they deserve.
A new report, Pay, Professionalism & Respect, put out by the National Domestic Workers Alliance We Dream in Black program and the Institute for Policy Studies Black Worker Initiative, shines a spotlight on the untold workplace humiliations, abuses and outright cruelties inflicted on black women in one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries. It’s a story of mistreatment closing in on all sides: from workers teetering on the brink of homelessness to rampant wage theft and workplace injury to unrestrained sexual harassment and bigotry in the workplace.
“I ended up homeless for eight months,” Diane Heller, a caregiver who’s bounced between her hometown of Chicago, IL and Atlanta and Savannah, GA, says in the report. “I was a live-in and the client was horrendous. She screamed and yelled a lot and kicked me out on the coldest day of the year. I had to go to a shelter, and it was a living hell.”
Despite growing demand for caregivers of all stripes — nannies, housekeepers and home health aides — poverty haunts every corner of the industry. This is especially true in the South. In North Carolina, for example, median income for home health aides is $19,680. And in the Atlanta metropolitan area, maids and housekeepers making the median wage are taking home just $19,380. Both are well below the federal poverty line for a family of four, $25,100.
The indignities don’t stop at poverty wages. Many caregivers, who spend much of their waking lives caring for the nation’s most physically vulnerable, find it impossible to secure care themselves. Lurika Wynn of Durham, for example, has made veteran healthcare work her passion. Yet her years working in the field have been financially and physically perilous. Speaking of her workplace injuries and lack of health insurance, she says “I have torn ligaments, plus I have nerve pain from lifting and pulling. … I’m never going to [get workers’ comp] for it. When this back is done, I’m out.”
Wynn is not alone. There are over two million domestic workers in the United States, but few of them enjoy any benefits to speak of. As the report notes, “only 12.2% of in-home workers nationally receive health insurance from their job, compared with 50.6% in other professions.” And across the country, “less than 2% of domestic workers receive retirement or pensions benefits from their primary employer.”
“It’s pitiful,” Smith says. “And it’s unfair. It’s not that the money isn’t there. The money is in this field. They just choose not to put it” towards health care.
But the report offers more than a catalog of abuses. Alongside every outrage, the spotlight is also placed on the growing power of black domestic workers to overcome them.
“We’re really focused on raising the floor for black domestic workers,” says Celeste Faison, the Director of Black Organizing at NDWA who also heads up strategy for their We Dream in Black program. With outposts in five states — Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida — We Dream in Black has emerged as an important vehicle for empowering black domestic workers and caregivers to change their lives.
But on top of winning robust labor protections and decent wages and benefits for domestic workers, Faison places their struggle in a much longer lineage. “It’s also about beginning to tear down the sets of belief and historical practices of devaluing black labor,” she says.
This approach elevates the country’s full history, warts and all. And the conditions facing black domestic workers are a perfect example of where that history collides with the present. “If you really want to trace the history of wealth inequity in this country you can use domestic work.”
Faison sketches a clear picture, from the days of the southern slave empire and long into its aftermath, all the way through the New Deal and right up to the present. At every step, black labor — and domestic workers in particular — held the wretched position of being caregivers to a nation that enslaved, mutilated and raped them while pilfering their wages, if there were wages to speak of, and refused to offer them the workplace dignity that popular struggle had won for scores of white workers under FDR.
“If you ask any black person they’ll either say their grandmother or their great-grandmother or their great aunt was a domestic worker,” Faison says. “These were the jobs that were available for black women.” Fast forward to the present and “you can see the wealth inequities between black women and everyone else.”
As America’s most faithful voting bloc, it can be argued that black women are either the republic’s truest believers or the most unshakable in their commitment to see it do no further harm.
On first glance, it can be difficult to square this with the fact that, as the report reveals, large chunks of these women have been overlooked, or trampled underfoot, by the political class. Faison is both unsurprised and unswerving.
“The political channels don’t have care work on their agenda,” she says. “It’s really up to black women and immigrant women … to demand dignity and respect in their workplace.” She adds that there’s nothing mysterious about how to make that a reality. “How that happens is old-fashioned organizing.”
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ELI DAY was an investigative fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. He’s also a Detroiter, where he writes about politics, policy, racial and economic justice. His work has appeared in Vox, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and the New Republic, among others.