The Legacy of Slavery Is Alive in the South as Black Women Workers Face Horrendous Conditions

Eli Day

Domestic worker leaders from the National Domestic Workers Alliance's "We Dream in Black" program in Durham and Atlanta are fighting for better standards in the care industry. (Photo courtesy of NDWA)

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.” 

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.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue