Employment and Jobs

An Interview with Job Quality Fellow Palak Shah

April 19, 2018  • Palak Shah & Economic Opportunities Program

Job Quality Fellow, Class of 2017-18

Social Innovations Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance

Who are domestic workers, and what are the major challenges they face in the labor market?

Domestic workers, numbering approximately 2.5 million in the United States, are the nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers of our elderly and disabled loved ones. They are mostly women, many of whom are women of color and immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

Domestic workers are some of the most vulnerable workers in the US. Stemming from deeply rooted racial and gender bias, domestic work is often not considered “real work” within our culture. Domestic workers have been excluded from labor protection laws in the United States, such as a minimum wage, overtime pay, safe working conditions, time off from work, and the ability to form a union.

Additionally, when work takes place behind the closed doors of private residences, and when employment is a one-to-one relationship between employer and employee, there is much room for mistreatment and even abuse. Safety of domestic workers is not always considered, and schedules can change without notice. Domestic workers are also often subject to harassment, enabled by the dramatic power imbalance between an employer in the privacy of their home and an employee without the full rights of workers in other industries. Most domestic workers do not have a formal work agreement or a human resources department to help resolve grievances when an employer changes what was verbally agreed to or even withholds pay.

In short, the domestic workers are in the shadows of the US economy. Despite the critical care services they provide, they face immense challenges at work.

What is the connection between domestic workers and the future of work?

For the first time in decades, there is a national dialogue around the types of challenges workers are facing. What is being talked about nationally in terms of gig work has many similarities with what domestic workers have faced for decades. In many ways, domestic workers are the original gig workers.

With the growth of the gig economy, the issues raised by gig work — including income instability, responsibilities of employers when workers are independent contractors, lack of access to benefits, worker safety when the workplace is a private residence — are increasingly in the public eye. There is growing urgency to find solutions to these problems, bringing new interest in strategies domestic workers have surfaced and that we are experimenting with at National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). If we can solve these problems for domestic workers, we can solve them for gig economy workers too.

Describe NDWA’s work and how it’s connected to job quality.

NDWA is the leading voice for the nation’s approximately 2.5 million domestic workers. It is incredibly difficult to improve and secure job quality for domestic workers due to their historical exclusion from labor protections and the relationship between workers and the families who employ them. Traditional strategies for improving working conditions and building worker power, such as collective bargaining and collective action, are not necessarily effective with the domestic workforce.

For this reason, NDWA has had to be innovative and entrepreneurial in figuring out strategies to improve the lives of this workforce. Our strategies include working to gain labor protections at the state level, partnering with the private sector on new tools and initiatives, and organizing to expand the power and voices of domestic workers.

Our initial strategy was to pass state-level legislation that extends basic protections to domestic workers and ends exclusions from labor protections afforded to other workers. Our signature piece of legislation, the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, establishes an eight-hour workday, overtime pay, and one day off every seven days, among other provisions. We’ve passed the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Hawaii, Connecticut, and Nevada, affecting 28 percent of all domestic workers nationwide.

This legislation was a vital first step in extending to domestic workers the most basic protections that many of us take for granted. At the same time, we’re striving to raise the floor beyond basic protections to ensure domestic work is good work. We aim to expand the number of domestic workers we reach through our movement, including those in informal employment relationships that make enforcing labor protections challenging.

Describe some of your accomplishments as Social Innovations Director.

I lead NDWA’s Innovation Lab. We experiment, innovate, and launch products to find new solutions to improve standards for domestic workers.

Our flagship initiative is the Good Work Code, a framework for creating good work in the online economy. The Good Work Code is a north star for us to work towards. The Code comprises eight principles that are the foundation of good work:

  1. Safety
  2. Stability and Flexibility
  3. Transparency
  4. Shared Prosperity
  5. Fair Pay
  6. Inclusion and Input
  7. Support and Connection
  8. Growth and Development

The fundamental idea behind the Good Work Code is that we first need to decide what good work looks like before we can figure out how to operationalize it. Soon after we launched the Good Work Code, 12 tech companies publicly endorsed it.

All of our initiatives in the Lab support principles of the Code. For example, our flagship product, Alia, aims to support the Good Work Code value of Fair Pay. Alia is a mobile platform that makes it easy for clients of housecleaners to contribute financially to their benefits. This is important because cleaners are a population of workers who typically have not had access to benefits as they often work for multiple clients, none of whom singularly hold this responsibility. Through Alia, clients contribute to a cleaner’s benefits proportionally according to how often they hire her so that she can access paid sick days or health insurance products. This represents significant progress for cleaners’ working conditions.

Our team has also worked in partnership with the private sector to improve job quality. We provided guidance for Airbnb’s Living Wage Pledge, which asked US Airbnb hosts to commit to paying their cleaners a living wage: $25 per hour for independent cleaners or $15 per hour for cleaners employed by a company. We also created a partnership with Care.com, a publicly traded tech company, to launch the Fair Care Pledge. This online pledge encourages families who employ domestic workers to pay a living wage, set clear and transparent expectations, and provide paid time off, including medical and sick leave. To date, the pledge has been signed by over 250,000 employers of domestic workers, and it is the first set of fair labor standards to be articulated in the industry.

How has the emergence of new technology influenced your work?

Technology has created a real and significant opportunity for raising labor standards and organizing domestic workers. The domestic workforce, which has long been informal and disaggregated, has never been connected and visible in this way before. With online platforms, the care and cleaning market is undergoing an unprecedented level of aggregation compared to the typical one-to-one employment ratio that takes place in households. This creates an opportunity to effect change and improve the lives of domestic workers at scale in a way that hasn’t previously been possible for this workforce.

We are in a critical moment right now in terms of figuring out how we build an economy that works for all of us and how we can harness technology to do so.

Over the next few years, what are your goals for improving job quality?

Every day, I am focused on improving job quality for domestic workers, at scale, and bringing more domestic workers into our movement. If we are successful over the next few years, we will increase wages across all areas of domestic work, increase access to quality benefits, and increase the number of domestic workers who have contracts with their employers.

To achieve these goals, we plan to grow and refine our digital tools such as Alia. We see these tools as an important strategy for reaching the large segment of the domestic work market that is characterized by individual relationships between workers and families. We also intend to continue to shape conversations around the future of work and embed the values of dignity and respect for workers into emerging online platforms. And we are exploring ways to establish a “Good Work” seal for domestic work in the model of Fair Trade or USDA Organic.

We must be creative and continue to experiment, innovate, and test key hypotheses. As a Job Quality Fellow, I’m able to benefit from collaboration and conversations with leaders of other social movements and disciplines to inform our strategies.


Learn More
Employment and Jobs
Announcing the Job Quality Fellowship Class of 2017-18
September 7, 2017 • Economic Opportunities Program


Share now

“Domestic workers are in the shadows of the US economy. Despite the critical care services they provide, they face immense challenges at work.” @palaknshah

“We’re striving to raise the floor beyond basic protections to ensure domestic work is good work.” @palaknshah

“[Technology] creates an opportunity to effect change and improve the lives of domestic workers at scale in a way that hasn’t previously been possible for this workforce.” @palaknshah


We are grateful to the Ford Foundation and The Prudential Foundation for their support of this work.