Employment and Jobs

National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Envisions Path to Benefits for Care Workers, Home Cleaners

July 15, 2019  • Natalie Foster, Libby Reder & Shelly Steward

For many, the workplace of the future isn’t a high-tech computer room or an automated factory floorit’s in homes. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nearly 12 percent of all new job openings in the next decade are likely to be in home-based occupations, including home health aides, personal care aides, childcare workers, and house cleaners. That means there will be two and a half times more job openings in domestic work than in all computer-related occupations.[1]

Several factors are behind the predicted growth in domestic and care work. An aging population with increased life expectancy translates into greater need for care workers. Growing numbers of households with two parents employed outside the home increases the need for in-home childcare and cleaning work. And although technological change holds the potential to deeply impact some professions, domestic work is unlikely to be automated. Analyses by both McKinsey Global Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers estimate that among industries, those related to health and social serviceswhere domestic work is concentratedare at low risk of automation. While domestic work may require more digital skills over time, and technology may augment some caregiving tasks, much domestic work will always be performed by people. In many ways, the future of work is domestic work.

When we talk about improving conditions for workers of the future, then, we need to consider domestic workers. Strengthening our workforce and our economy for the 21st century means ensuring that domestic and care work is valued work. Today, though, many domestic workers struggle to get by. Their compensation is often low, and difficult to track due to the frequency of informal and under-the-table work. The annual income for domestic work occupations is half that of all occupations; in 2018, home health aides averaged $25,330, house cleaners averaged $25,570, and childcare workers averaged $24,610, compared to an average across all occupations of $51,960. In addition, workplace legal protections rarely cover domestic workers: they are explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act; the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not apply to those hired to perform household tasks; and the protections against discrimination in the Civil Rights Act typically apply only to employers with more than one employee.

In our recently published paper, Designing Portable Benefits: A Resource Guide for Policymakers, we argue that non-traditional workers, defined as those who hold a job that is neither permanent nor full-time, need (1) fair pay, (2) workplace benefits that map to the reality of their work arrangement(s), (3) workplace protections, (4) a way to advocate for better working conditions, and (5) attention to worker classification issues. Domestic workers are among those with the greatest need for these reforms, since they often experience these challenges more acutely and have fewer avenues for recourse since they usually lack an HR department or formal personnel policies, are rarely able to discuss working conditions with colleagues because they often work alone, and often do not have contracts.

To address these challenges, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jayapal today introduced comprehensive legislation: the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act. This bill builds on the passage of similar legislation in nine states and one city that have enabled domestic workers in these jurisdictions to advocate for better compensation and working conditions and seek justice in situations of abuse.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act addresses all five areas of need for non-traditional workers. To improve pay and working conditions, the legislation proposes the creation of a Domestic Worker Wage and Standards Board. This new institution would be similar to existing wage boards in New York, California, and Seattle, and would be comprised of employer and worker representatives who would make recommendations to the Department of Labor for action. For workplace protections, the bill extends key legal safeguards to domestic workers, including written agreements, mandated meal and rest breaks, fair scheduling practices, the right to privacy, and recourse against discrimination and harrassment. To address issues related to classification, most provisions of the bill encompass all work arrangements, regardless of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. And the bill creates a path to workplace benefits for domestic workers, starting with paid sick days, as well as a study by the Department of Labor on the barriers domestic workers face accessing workers’ compensation, health insurance, retirement security, and unemployment insurance, with recommendations about how to address those barriers.

Pursuing workplace benefits for domestic workers is especially important. Non-traditional workers tend to have low rates of benefits coverage compared to traditional workers, and coverage among domestic workers is particularly low. According to the results of the 2012 National Domestic Workers Survey, conducted by a consortium of research and advocacy groups, less than two percent receive retirement from their primary employer; less than nine percent have an employer who pays into Social Security; and, critically, only four percent receive health insurance from their employerand 65 percent lack health insurance entirely.

However, designing benefits for domestic workers presents unique challenges. Most domestic workers are their employer’s sole employee, and many have multiple simultaneous arrangements that can complicate how benefits are financed. In addition, the work patterns of domestic workers are often irregular, including part-time arrangements and long hours, which could complicate eligibility requirements. Finally, many domestic workers face additional barriers to accessing benefits, including lacking a bank account, English language fluency, digital proficiency, or immigration status. Given these factors, the bill advances benefits provision with the important first step of requiring a comprehensive study. This effort promises to elucidate the obstacles domestic workers face in getting benefits, and what reforms are necessary to increase their access to work-related benefits.

Combined with innovative tools for benefits delivery, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Alia, which enables home-cleaning clients to contribute to benefits for their cleaners, insights from careful study are an essential step in improving the safety net for all workers. And while the U.S. Department of Labor is well-positioned to collect and analyze this information, other interested entitiessuch as state governments or nonprofit organizationscould conduct a similar study to better understand the unique challenges in accessing benefits faced by certain populations. A better understanding of benefits needs paves the way for effective policy that improves the financial security of the home-based workforce of today and the future.

Note: Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, serves as a member of the National Advisory Council of the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative.

[1] Based on 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Projections.