Ai-jen Poo, who advocates for domestic workers from nannies to home heath aides, recently attended the Golden Globes as Meryl Streep’s plus-one. Poo is the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the recipient of the 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant and the co-creator of the Caring Across Generations campaign. The National Domestic Workers Alliance advocates for domestic workers ranging from nannies to home health workers.
Home Health Care News caught up with her about the Golden Globes, harassment in home care, and what’s next after the #MeToo movement.
Can you talk about the experience of going to the Golden Globes?
The experience was uniquely powerful because it was really the coming together of many organizations and groups of women affected by sexual assault, harassment and discrimination, who were uniting across industries and communities to say, “We all deserve to live and work in a safe and dignified environment. We’re going to come together to continue to build our organizing and our momentum and our power so we achieve that future.”
It was just a moment to be able to make our unity visible and hopefully to inspire lots of people—including survivors who may be isolated—to know that they’re not alone and that there’s a growing movement out here trying to change the world.
The workforce that I represent is a workforce that works in the private home as domestic workers cleaning, or as nannies caring for children, and as home care workers caring for the aging and supporting people with disabilities to live independently. That work can be very isolating in that it’s often hidden behind closed doors. Especially in the private-pay gray market, there’s really no list anywhere, no place that these workplaces are registered. There’s an invisibility to the work, and being able to have the visibility of a platform like the Golden Globes to draw attention to the experiences of the women who do this work was very, very important to us.
How prevalent is sexual harassment in home care?
Unfortunately, it is quite prevalent, as are many other abuses. When you have a workforce that’s largely working in isolation behind closed doors, it’s a breeding ground for unscrupulous practices, particularly when you look at a workforce where there’s high concentrations of women who are immigrant women and women of color. There’s just a high degree of vulnerability and very little in the way of accountability.
This workforce has been systematically excluded from some of the most basic labor protections that other workers have taken for granted since the New Deal. There’s a long history behind that exclusion but essentially when Congress in the 1930s was debating the policies that would be known as the tenets of the New Deal, southern members of Congress refused to support the labor laws that were going to be a part of the New Deal if they included farm workers and domestic workers, who were largely black workers at the time. That history of racial exclusion in our labor laws has really shaped and created the vulnerability for this workforce ever since.
First of all, though, the work is so profoundly undervalued. The average or the annual median income for a home care worker is around $13,000 per year. So we’re talking about a workforce that’s working incredibly hard and still unable to pay the bills and care for their own families. Plus, because of the isolation of the work, the incidences of abuse are actually quite frequent. We often hear stories of sexual harassment, of groping, fondling, even sexual assault, [of] employers, households creating a hostile environment with pornography and other things. I think there’s a way in which the exclusion—and the way that the exclusions have relegated this work to the shadows of our economy—have created a breeding ground for shadowlike behavior on the part of employers.
What have been your takeaways from the recent discussions and revelations about sexual harassment in the workplace?
One thing I took away is that it’s not just domestic workers. There’s so many millions and millions of workers, both women and men, who fall through the cracks of our existing protections, whether they’re working as independent contractors, or they’re working as farm workers or they’re tipped workers. There’s so many workers who are working really hard in this economy and completely unprotected from unscrupulous practices on the part of both employers and, if they’re in the service economy, clients or customers. So we just have to really update—and in some ways revolutionize—our harassment policies to better protect working people and to ensure that no one is left behind.
What would you personally like to see from the discussions, especially with regard to domestic workers and home health and home care workers?
I would love to see a whole new awareness about the professionalism of this work and a way in which we recognize the critical role that this workforce is playing in our current economy and in our future economy.
Care jobs are going to be a huge share of the workforce of the future, and we have simply got to make these jobs good jobs that you can take pride in and support your family on, where one generation can do better than the next. Just like we did with manufacturing jobs in the 1930s, which used to be, frankly, sweatshop jobs that were dangerous and low-wage, and there were a lot of immigrant women doing this work, women of marginalized social status doing this work. We’ve managed to make those jobs good jobs that created economic mobility for generation after generation, and that is exactly what we must do with care jobs and other low-wage service jobs, which are disproportionately where women are concentrated and disproportionately poverty-wage jobs.
What is next?
I think that we continue to support survivors. People continue to come out and speak their truths, and it is very important that those survivors have access to legal services and emotional health services and all the supports that help people heal from trauma. We need to ensure that those cases and those stories inform how we design our public policy solutions so we can continue to strengthen the way that we support survivors, hold abusers accountable, but also to prevent these kinds of violations from happening in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Written by Maggie Flynn