Home work is professional work for domestic workers. But there, as in the rest of the world, a domestic worker’s race and immigration status impact how well she’s paid and what kind of working environment she lives with. Undocumented domestic workers are paid roughly 20 percent less than their U.S.-citizen counterparts, according to a groundbreaking new report offering the first national look at domestic workers’ world—one where unforgiving work, a high incidence of abuse and differential pay depending on race is the standard. More than 2,000 nannies, house cleaners and caregivers in 14 U.S. cities were surveyed for the study (PDF), released today by the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Domestic work is treated as women’s work—94 percent of such workers are women. And domestic work is low-paying work. Domestic workers earn 23 percent less than their state’s minimum wage. But within the industry, U.S.-born and U.S.-citizen nannies, caregivers and housecleaners make roughly a dollar more an hour than their counterparts who have legal status, and around two dollars more an hour than undocumented domestic workers. The median hourly wage for U.S.-citizen domestic workers is $12 an hour, but is $10 an hour for those who are undocumented.
As in the rest of the working world, a domestic worker’s immigration status impacts her pay and her worklife. Undocumented domestic workers are more likely than workers with legal status or citizenship to report being assigned work beyond their job descriptions. They’re also more likely to be required to do “heavy, strenuous” work, get injured on the job, and then have to work while injured. Some 77 percent of undocumented domestic workers reported working while sick, injured or in pain, compared to 66 percent of all domestic workers surveyed, and just 56 of U.S.-born domestic workers. Those who are are foreign-born make up 46 percent of the domestic worker workforce.
The differences don’t end there. The study found that white domestic workers tend to make more than workers color, who make up 54 percent of the domestic workers workforce. The median wage for white caregivers is $12 an hour, compared with the $10 an hour that black and Latino caregivers make, and the $8.33 an hour that Asian caregivers earn. In one exception, black nannies tend to out earn white nannies, making $12.71 an hour, compared with the $12.55 that white nannies earn.
The women in charge of caring for a family’s most precious members are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse themselves. “In the context of the absence of labor and employment protections, and the radically decentralized and intimate nature of the work, these combined demographic characteristics render the workforce vulnerable to the low wages, absence of benefits, hazardous environments, and abuses of power that too often typify domestic work,” the report says.
Federal and most states’ minimum wage laws don’t cover domestic workers, who are also generally uncovered by workers’ compensation laws, unemployment insurance or federal protection from discrimination. Precisely because of the unregulated, individualized and isolated nature of domestic work, public policy plays an important role in protecting these workers’ rights. The report calls for basic protections—state policy that includes domestic workers in minimum wage laws; domestic workers’ access to state and federal overtime pay; and a right to meal breaks, rest days, and at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep for live-in domestic workers. The policy proposals are so fundamental that they provide their own jarring portrait of the difficult, hazardous world of working inside the home.