The following is a conversation between Ai-jen Poo, the Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Have you ever had someone who wasn’t a family member take care of you? Or maybe someone who’s providing care for your elderly parent right now? The women who provide these services are among the most important and also the most undervalued assets we have in this country. That did not go unnoticed by my next guest. She has been named by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People, is an author, and recently was out at the Golden Globe Awards as Meryl Streep’s plus one. She is Ai-jen Poo, the Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Good evening, Ai-jen, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Ai-jen: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
Denver: Give us a quick snapshot of NDWA, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the mission of the organization.
Ai-jen: We represent the growing workforce of mostly women who work in our homes. They go to work as nannies and care for our children. They work as house cleaners and maintain sanity in our chaotic homes. They work as home-care workers and home attendants, supporting our loved ones with disabilities, our parents, our grandparents.
It’s the work that makes all other work possible. It allows for all us to go and do what we do in the world every day knowing that our homes and our families are in good hands.
Denver: On any given day, how many women are employed in the US homes as domestic workers?
Ai-jen: There are over two million women who do this work, and some of the segments of the workforce, particularly the elder-care segment of home care workers, is the single fastest-growing occupation in our entire economy. So, we project this workforce to grow at five times the rate of any other workforce in the entire economy.
Denver: Give us a profile of these women and a sense of what many of their everyday lives might be like.
Ai-jen: This workforce is a workforce that is over 90% women, and disproportionately women of color, black women, immigrant women; and it’s a workforce that is working highly hidden, behind closed doors, isolated environments. You could go into any neighborhood and not know which homes are also workplaces because it’s not like there’s a list or a registry anywhere. So, it’s defined by its invisibility. There’s this very long history of exclusion from some of the most basic labor protections that most of us take for granted as working people.
That history dates all the way back to the New Deal in the 1930s when Congress was negotiating the core pillars of the New Deal that were about protections for workers, including the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Southern members of Congress refused to support those bills if they included farm workers and domestic workers who were black workers at that time. And so as a concession to those Dixiecrats, those bills became law, excluding those two sectors of workers. And so for generations, my workforce of domestic workers has been essentially working in the shadow of that exclusion and that history of slavery in this country.
The fact that the work of caring and cleaning has historically been associated with women… as women’s work, it’s not even considered real work. It’s often described as “help.” For generations, women have been doing it as family members, unpaid; that’s been sort of the expectation. And then for generations as a profession, it’s often been women of color and immigrant women, women of socially marginalized status who’ve done the work. And so, I think the devaluing of the work is a reflection also on who the work is associated with.
Denver: And the New Deal, of course, was about 80 years ago. So why, even today, as important as these women are — not only to the families but, as you said, to a functioning economy– why do we so undervalue this work?
Ai-jen: It’s a great question, and I think about it all the time because it is so vital to our lives. I mean this is fundamental work and so much of the lifeblood of what it means to have a family and also participate in the economy. I think it has to do with the work itself on one level. The fact that the work of caring and cleaning has historically been associated with women…as women’s work, it’s not even considered real work. It’s often described as “help.” For generations, women have been doing it as family members, unpaid; that’s been sort of the expectation. And then for generations as a profession, it’s often been women of color and immigrant women, women of socially marginalized status who’ve done the work. And so, I think the devaluing of the work is a reflection also on who the work is associated with.
Denver: Those are very good insights. NDWA has done surveys of these domestic workers. What are some of the things that turned up in these surveys?
Ai-jen: Things like the fact that only 1 out of every 10 workers has access to healthcare or the fact that more than 30% of the workforce is undocumented. Now, some of the more recent data has shown through Pew research that this workforce is the largest concentration of undocumented workers in any sector of the workforce.
So a lot of people perceive agriculture as the place where you have a lot of immigrant workers, especially undocumented. No, it’s actually right in our homes that we rely upon undocumented immigrants to care for the most intimate and precious elements of our lives.
There are high rates of abuse, and the annual median income for a home care worker, for example, is $13,000 per year. Can you imagine trying to survive in New York on $13,000 per year, let alone raise a family? And that’s what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with a workforce that is working incredibly hard, and we’re counting on them to care for us. But they can’t take care of their own families doing this work.
Denver: Just from what you said, it would seem that if they are in a difficult situation with an employer, whether it be abuse or disrespect, probably a lot of them just have to keep it to themselves and not speak up.
Ai-jen: The risks are really great. The stakes are incredibly high. So speaking out, which does happen often, there’s an incredible amount of courage in this workforce. Speaking out means that you often risk not only your financial security, and most of this workforce is working paycheck to paycheck or even struggling and behind on bills. In the case of immigrant workers, they often risk threats of deportation and family separation. What the immigration threats are really about is about the fact that there are 11 million of us living in this country. And especially in this new climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, simple acts of daily life like getting to the store to get groceries for your kids, or getting on the bus to go to work, or taking your kid to school in the morning could put you at risk for deportation. Now, imagine what an unscrupulous employer could do in terms of holding that threat over the head of a worker!
Denver: What I find to be remarkable is, with nearly two million of these women working in about two million different offices around the country — those being people’s homes — how in the world were you able to go about and organize them?
Ai-jen: We are certainly known for creativity by necessity because it’s not easy. There’s nowhere to go to figure out which homes are also workplaces as I mentioned before. So, we have a situation where we’ve got to go everywhere and anywhere. So, we go to churches. We work a lot with pastors and oftentimes get referrals from pastors. We work a lot in transportation hubs. You’re often finding domestic workers having long commutes on the buses and the subways and the commuter rails to get from where they live to where they work. We also go a lot through networks, and we’re fortunate now that we have technology, and a lot of people are on their mobile phones and on Facebook. So, we’re able to also leverage social media to reach people as well.
Denver: Well, Ai-jen, you have given a completely different meaning to grassroots campaigns because this is the ultimate one. One of your signature achievements was leading the campaign for the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which happened right here in New York State in 2010. What was included in that legislation? And what has happened since then in other states around the country?
Ai-jen: Well I have to say that the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign in New York was an epic seven-year-long journey that involved hundreds, probably thousands, of domestic workers themselves who sacrificed days of pay in order to get on the bus to Albany to share their stories, to march. And, really, it was a labor of love on the part of hundreds and hundreds of women. What we were successful in doing was really bringing this workforce out of the shadows into… not just the attention of the media, but into the hearts and minds of legislators; and it did take seven years.
It was quite a journey, but at the end of that, what we were successful in achieving was full inclusion in all of the state’s labor laws and human rights laws that protect the rights of workers on the job, including allowing for a day of rest per week, protection from discrimination and harassment, full inclusion in the state’s disability laws and protections. And we were able to win paid time off for the first group of workers in New York State by law.
So, a lot of New Yorkers do get paid time off, but not by law, so we were able to achieve three days paid leave per year because the state legislature acknowledged the unique challenges that a domestic worker would have in trying to assert their right to time off with so little negotiating power. So, it was a big breakthrough, and it set the stage, I think, for more workers to be able to gain paid time off by law.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about that in terms of the momentum that it created in other states. I know you’re doing something in Hawaii right now.
Ai-jen: A lot of people told us a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights would be impossible in New York, and we just never believed them. What workers around the country saw is women in Texas and in Oregon and all over saw this happen in New York and got inspired and said, “We can do this, too.” So, Nevada just became the eighth state to pass a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.
Each state is a little different because all of the states have slightly different frameworks for their labor protections. But in each of those eight states, the protections for this workforce have expanded. What we’re working on now is also through our campaign Caring Across Generations, looking for ways to make care more affordable and accessible for the families that need it. So, not just working on the side of making these jobs better jobs, but also on the side of what families need in order to afford good care, being able to try to find those win/win solutions.
Denver: Let me digress for a moment if I can, Ai-jen. You grew up wanting to be an artist. You were never a domestic worker for that matter. You never had a nanny or a housekeeper. How in the world did you come to make this your life’s work?
Ai-jen: You know I always follow the women. I have very strong women in my life… my mom and my grandmother. I think that I was always drawn towards women’s stories, their experience, their courage. And when I was volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in New York City when I was in college, what I heard was just an incredible amount of courage and also enormous barriers to economic mobility and opportunity on the part of women in those shelters.
There were women who were working full-time jobs as caregivers and domestic workers and still unable to pay the rent on their own and leave their abusers as a result. So, I just thought: why don’t we have jobs that women can support themselves and raise a family on with safety and security? So, I started working on that issue in the community and haven’t turned back since.
Denver: Let me ask you about one of those women. Tell us a little bit about your maternal grandmother.
Ai-jen: My grandmother is 93, and she lives in Southern California in a retirement home that’s right next to a Chinese grocery, not far from the Chinese church. So, she’s able to live independently and have a very vibrant life in her early 90s because she’s supported by a home care worker. So part of this for me is, my grandmother taught me most of my values and really, I think, is a big part of why I do what I do today. Just the basic idea that we should be grateful to and honor our caregivers in life, and that everybody should have the ability to achieve their full potential. It was these values and my gratitude towards her that really made me want to invest in the relationship that my grandmother’s caregiver has with her to say: How do we create value and support for these relationships… for everyone, because people who raise us, like my grandmother, really deserve nothing less.
Denver: Well, that’s a great springboard to talk about how your work has evolved, and you became aware that there is a home healthcare crisis in this country of enormous proportions. How did that first catch your attention?
Ai-jen: A lot of the women in our membership who were originally hired as house cleaners or nannies suddenly started asking for training in home care, in elder care, and it was such a phenomenon that we decided to really try to understand what was happening. And what we found was that people who had a relative who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s… or an elder in the family who is coming home from having a stroke or a procedure in the hospital… they didn’t have much support, and so they automatically went to the domestic worker in their life… that is the person that they trust with other aspects of their household and their intimate family life. And yet the women who are doing this work actually recognized that they needed more preparation. They needed more training.
What we realized was that there was a huge and growing need for elder care on the part of American families and very little in place to support that need. So, domestic workers were being sucked into that need without much preparation or organization. And there was an opportunity there to bring together the interest of a growing set of families who need care with those of this workforce that’s been so undervalued to say: How do we invest in our caregiving infrastructure in this country so that families can afford and get access to what they need, and workers can have access to the jobs?
Denver: You sound like a matchmaker, but it makes an awful lot of sense. This is the elephant in the room… this elder care crisis, and it is a little disheartening to see how little it is discussed. What are the proportions of that crisis that this country is going to face over the next couple of decades?
Ai-jen: I don’t want to scare anybody. But I wrote a book on this because I feel like the proportions are profound. Every eight seconds, someone turns 65 in this country. It’s a result of the very large and influential generation of baby boomers reaching retirement age, and also the fact that healthcare and advances in technology have allowed us to live longer than we ever imagined when we put our safety net in place.
So, we’re about to have the largest older population in history, and my grandmother’s generation of 85 and older is actually the fastest growing demographic because of these advances in healthcare. So, we’re going to have this large population that actually could potentially live well for much, much longer, have more time to learn and contribute and connect and love and all the great things that longevity could potentially offer if we put the right supports in place.
And unfortunately, we haven’t yet done so. Which is why the Hawaii legislation that we’ve been working on is such an important model, as well as the ballot initiative we’re working on in Maine, an initiative in Washington State. We’re working on trying to create access to universal long-term care for the growing population of people who are going to need care in order to live well as they age and become more frail. So, in Washington, we’re working on Long-Term Care Social Insurance, called the Long-Term Care Trust Act in the State of Washington. In Maine, we’ve just collected enough signatures to put universal home care on the ballot.
In Hawaii, we just passed a bill called the Kupuna Caregiver Program, which basically is the first family caregiver benefit in the country. If you’re caring for your aging parent at home, you can apply for a benefit of up to $70 per day to help you afford respite care or somebody to help take your loved one to a doctor’s appointment or home modifications… basically, some of the expenses that really add up quickly when you’re caring for somebody at home.
Denver: This is really so interesting because it has another dimension as well, and that is that these older, elderly people are going to be predominantly white, and this country is becoming more and more diverse with every passing year. Perhaps Arizona, more than any other state, foreshadows what America is going to look like over the next couple of decades. What does Arizona look like? And how are they dealing with those demographic trends?
Ai-jen: Arizona happens to be the state that is the most generationally and racially polarized in the country. Meaning, we have the largest concentration of white people over the age of 65… versus the largest concentration of young people of color under the age of 18, and that racial and generational polarization has been a breeding ground for division and a very divisive brand of politics that has started to dominate also our federal politics.
What they foreshadow is the atmosphere where the interest of older white people and younger people of color get pitted against each other. It’s no accident that it’s the place where somebody — a polarizing figure like Sheriff Joe Arpaio — rose to power. He rose to power off of really terrorizing and racially profiling immigrants in the state. It’s the birthplace of the anti-immigrant legislation, SB 1070, and I believe that those things are no accident; that we’re dealing with context, which is ripe for division… that unless we proactively work against that, that we offer an alternative vision, and we talk about the ways that we can come together to create a vision for the future of this country that truly does meet our interests across race, class, and generation, that we will be vulnerable to that level of division and toxicity.
Many would say that we have already gone too far down that path as a nation, and so what we offer in my work on caregiving is a caregiving agenda that really speaks to the needs of families across generations of working people, across race and class. And it offers a story about who we are as people that everyone can connect to. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have a care story. So, this is something that we can really connect on and also work proactively on solutions together in a way that I think can really bring us together as a country.
… that it really looks at the role of the family caregiver as a unique role and a unique leverage point to ensure that older people who want to age in place and at home are able to do so… connected to their families…
Denver: I’m going to ask you for a few more of those solutions, if you will, because you’ve mentioned already, you’ve written a book on this. It’s called The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Care Boom in a Changing America, and you alluded to before: Caring Across Generations. I know there’s no silver bullet here, but what are some of the things you hope to see occur to try to bridge this gap?
Ai-jen: Already we’re bringing together people locally and communities around the country to share their care stories because it’s the basis for coming together. Really what we need is for communities to be working together. Look, there is such a huge need for care in the 21st century in this country that it’s what I call an “all-hands-on-deck” situation. We’re going to need a really strong caregiving workforce. We’re going to need family caregivers who are really supported. We’re going to need friends and neighbors to be a part of the solution– immigrants, non-immigrants; everyone’s going to have to be a part of the solution here. It requires us coming together and organizing locally, and what we’ve seen is also solutions bubbling up from the state level, up.
So, this piece of legislation in Hawaii, the Kupuna Caregiver Program, really breaks new ground in that it really looks at the role of the family caregiver as a unique role and a unique leverage point to ensure that older people who want to age in place and at home are able to do so… connected to their families; that working family caregivers have a little extra support as they struggle with managing care and work in the workforce.
As a system, we actually save money because home-based care is so much more affordable and efficient than institutional care. So, we’ve figured out a way to say: if you invest in home-based care and all the ways that that happens, you actually create a whole lot of savings for everyone, and you enhance a sense of community at the local level.
Denver: You’re really taking a look at an economic situation that is facing this country, and truly this polarizing racial divide, and really seeing it as an opportunity to bring us all together…would that be fair?
Ai-jen: It is fair. It is exactly the vision of this campaign, that ultimately, we need to come together as a country, and the challenges and opportunities are too great to not come together as a country to realize the opportunities. But we’re going to need anchors in order to do that. We’re going to need very concrete ideas for how to solve some of these big challenges that face us as a nation, and we think we have some ideas of how to do that. A big, long-range idea that we have is for something called the universal family care.
The idea that every working person in this country should have the support they need to pay for child care, elder care, paid family leave and support for disabilities because the idea in the 21st century that we have any way of meeting our family care needs and working at the same time without a shared public solution… feels really unrealistic, and if we invest in it on the front end and create real infrastructure around it, we can create, unlock all of this potential in our families and in the workforce too. That’s our long-range vision, that we should have a whole new universal building block that allows us to care for our families as we work.
I really think that automation and artificial intelligence and technology in general offer lots of opportunities. I mean this work is really difficult work. It’s difficult emotionally. It’s difficult physically, and there are ways that technology can create new efficiencies and actually make the jobs better jobs that don’t result in displacing the human and emotional dimension, but rather could potentially enhance and complement.
Denver: Ai-jen, what’s your thinking around technology as it relates to elder care? I think if we take a look at a place like Japan which is aging faster than just about anywhere else, even companies like Toyota are getting involved in robotics and all different kinds of technology to take care of that senior population. How do you think it’s going to complement the elder care worker here in the United States and other places around the world?
Ai-jen: It’s funny. Everybody asks me what I think about robot caregivers and the future, and I really think that automation and artificial intelligence and technology in general offer lots of opportunities. I mean this work is really difficult work. It’s difficult emotionally. It’s difficult physically, and there are ways that technology can create new efficiencies and actually make the jobs better jobs… that don’t result in displacing the human and emotional dimension, but rather could potentially enhance and complement.
If anybody’s ever had an older person in their care, they might know of this contraption called a Hoyer Lift. It is this unbelievably prehistoric piece of machinery. I just don’t understand why… and it’s meant to help lift people, individuals from one place to another; from the bed to a seat. It actually just doesn’t make any sense why we haven’t updated that technology. It’s just one example of the many ways if we direct technological innovation towards the values of enhancing human dignity, rather than replacing the human contribution, that so much could be possible.
Denver: You have a very enlightened organization in that the workers themselves are the ones who actually lead it. How does that impact the corporate culture at NDWA? And do you believe that there are lessons that can be learned for all of us from this model?
Ai-jen: Yes. Like any organizational culture, it is because it’s made up of humans, it’s imperfect. But we are so proud of the fact that there is real participation of workers that we represent at every level of the organization. Our board of directors is elected from our membership. So, my board is majority domestic workers or former domestic workers. It’s representative of all the diversity of geographies around the country that we also are working in, and workers are involved in every campaign and every committee. And we even have a fellowship program for domestic workers to work on staff as advocates and take leaves from their work.
Denver: That’s the Dorothy Bolden Fellowship, which I think was started when you received the MacArthur Genius Award a couple of years ago. Tell us about that.
Ai-jen: Exactly, I was very fortunate to receive the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship a couple of years ago. And just thinking about what my work needed the most, it really felt like the thing that could be the most game-changing for all us is to have more women who are doing this work–really working in the shadows of our economy, but really representative of the future of work in this country– at the forefront of developing our solutions. So, I created the Dorothy Bolden Fellowship so that caregivers and domestic workers could take time off from doing that work to actually working alongside me in the national office to try to figure out what solutions we need that can truly uplift this work and this workforce for the future.
Denver: Let me close with this, Ai-jen. You were Meryl Streep’s plus-one guest at the Golden Globes earlier this month. That had to be pretty, pretty cool. Why don’t you share with us that experience? But also, what’s next for the Time’s Up movement and how you believe it could impact the work and mission of NDWA?
Ai-jen: It was beyond cool, I have to say. It was one of the most important nights of my life in that, it was such a powerful feeling to be a part of a very important cultural moment. I grew up watching award shows. It’s always a great way to see what’s happening in the world of popular culture and storytelling, and I think that this moment in the Golden Globes was really unique because you’re just walking out onto the red carpet; you actually saw a sea of black. Everyone wearing black dresses in solidarity with survivors of violence. And then there were eight actresses who brought activists who’ve been working on these issues for decades. I think if you took the total number of years of our activism, it was more than 125.
Many of the actresses themselves are also activists and are certainly becoming activists in this moment. They had just launched the Time’s Up campaign, including a legal defense fund for low-income women who have been survivors or who are survivors of abuse or violence or harassment. What the day was, was the culmination of all of this planning and unity building where we brought women together across industries, across communities to say: we are going to work together until we can all live and work in an environment that is safe and dignified. And that was the message over and over again. It just felt so powerful to be unified in that message but also standing in our black. Meryl Streep called it the thick black line between the way things were and the way that they will be. It was incredibly inspiring, and I think the work just continues from here.
Denver: It was inspiring listening to you. Ai-jen Poo, the Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the author of The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, I want to thank you so much for coming in this evening. For people to learn more about these topics, or if they wish to become engaged in some way, where do they have to go to do all that?
Ai-jen: If they know a domestic worker or hire a domestic worker, they can visit domesticworkers.org, and if they’re interested in caregiving and all of these caregiving solutions that we’re finding for families in the workforce, go to caringacross.org.
Denver: Fantastic. Thanks, Ai-jen. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Ai-jen: Thank you for having me.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving