Sometimes, when things fall apart, space emerges for new ideas to take hold. Since the Great Recession in 2008, the overall resistance from business interests to basic ideas such as raising wages has sustained. Yet there have been glimmers of an emerging pro-worker ideology, one that has begun to influence some state and federal policymakers. Among the most important developments are those stemming from the domestic workers’ movement—a movement that is working to ensure basic labor protections for nannies, housekeepers and caregivers, and that is building awareness about how essential the labor inside of homes is for the economy as a whole.
In my book, Part of the Family: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers, and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights, I discuss how domestic workers have successfully persuaded state and federal policymakers to include domestic workers within basic labor protections such as overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938, deliberately excluded domestic workers. This type of gendered exclusion results in higher levels of poverty for women. Domestic workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States. Since our nation’s earliest days they have been excluded from basic labor protections, in large part because the work of the domestic sphere — dominated by women — has long been considered not “real” work.
In recent years, amid the economic turmoil so many Americans are experiencing, the message that domestic work is real work has begun to resonate with some policymakers. In 2010, the New York state legislature enacted the nation’s first domestic workers’ bill of rights, ensuring overtime, rest breaks and disability benefits for the state’s domestic workers. California followed suit in 2013 (though the legislative path wasn’t easy, with bills vetoed in 2006 and 2012). Hawaii also enacted legislation in 2013 that expands overtime protections for domestic workers. Massachusetts just enacted legislation that ensures a day of rest per week and protection from harassment on the job. Critically, President Obama and former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis finally reversed the exclusion of domestic workers from the FLSA. These regulations would ensure that domestic workers are protected under wage and hour laws, and, barring delays, will be effective in 2015.
During these legislative battles, advocates saw clear shifts in how legislators understood the issue of domestic workers’ rights. New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver originally refused to bring the state bill of rights to the assembly floor. But over time he was persuaded to support the legislation, and upon enactment, he noted, “This bill rights a wrong that began when domestic workers were excluded from the labor protections created by the New Deal and brings us one step closer to our goal of dignity and fairness for all workers across this state.”
Clearly, the end goal is not just the new regulations. These campaigns for domestic workers’ rights help change the way that all of us — including our legislators — think about the value of workers. The movement is part of a larger movement demanding that all workers be paid a living wage; receive paid sick days that are good for workers and public health; and have the right to paid family leave that is critical for workers and those who need their care.
There may continue to be setbacks — such as the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn on June 30, which weakened the collective bargaining power of many domestic workers. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for optimism. The heightened awareness among policymakers alone is a signal of progress, though it has to be sustained. My book advocates for more funding for community organizers who work hard to ensure that workers are aware of their rights and that new laws are enforced. Shining a light on emerging activism and its successes is also crucial.
The narrative of the economic collapse can indeed evolve into a better story – one in which the Great Recession eventually led to improved economic conditions for women and for all workers.