FOUR: The Hidden Inequities and Divisions among Workers in the US: The Domestic Workers’ Workforce as Non-Essential Workers

The COVID- 19 pandemic has laid bare the many ways in which domestic workers (housecleaners, nannies, and caregivers) remain undervalued, unprotected, and invisible across US cities. Over 2.2 million domestic workers in the US – 91.5 percent of whom are women – today face profound challenges and risks. As their employers take safety measures to practice social distancing, the so- called ‘low- touch’ economy has become widespread, and in April 2020 left 68 percent of domestic workers surveyed with no jobs according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) national survey (NDWA, 2020a).

At the same time, the vast majority of domestic workers are excluded from the protections of key federal labor laws and standards, including the right to minimum wage and those protections guaranteed under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and the Family Medical Leave Act. Currently, only ten US states and the city of Seattle have passed the Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers and yet, they lack Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and are at the good disposition of employers who choose to pay them while they are not working. All these aspects combined constitute strong limitations for improving domestic workers’ working conditions.

This chapter aims to provide an overview of the demographics, wages, benefits, and poverty living conditions of the domestic workers who, despite being on the frontlines of the pandemic, caring for the sick, and keeping homes clean, are yet not publicly recognized as essential workers. In addition, this work highlights the complex relationship between employer- employee and some of the incredible work that non- for- profit organizations across US cities have undertaken in order to improve domestic employees’ working conditions and advocate for better workers’ rights.

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