9 ways to support domestic workers’ fight for fair work

June 16, 2020

There are over 2 million domestic workers across the United States employed part- or full-time to provide families with valuable services, such as child care, senior care, care for people with disabilities and housekeeping. And by 2026, care jobs will constitute one of the fastest growing professions in the country, according to findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Yet, in many cases, workers are employed without a basic contract and left to contend with issues such as low wages and a lack of overtime pay or benefits, such as sick days, family leave and health insurance. According to a 2017 survey by the International Nanny Association, one-third of nannies surveyed say they don’t receive basic benefits like paid time off and sick days. 

It’s crucial to note that this crisis is deeply rooted in the U.S. history of slavery, says Haeyoung Yoon, policy director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). “The vast majority of domestic workers are women, an overwhelming number are people of color and a significant portion of immigrant workers,” says Yoon. “That legacy of devaluing what the workers do and who they are continues.”

That said, there are steps domestic employers — and in some cases, everyday citizens — can take to support equal rights and benefits for domestic workers. Here’s what experts recommend.

1. Provide a basic contract

Working without a contract strips domestic workers of rights and clarity while potentially leading a caregiver to take on extra, unpaid duties. 

“It's important to be clear about what your employee's job duties are so that they can perform their duties in a stress-free environment,” says Shenandoah Davis, the co-founder and CEO of Adventure Nannies who sits on the board of directors of the recently founded Nanny Relief Fund. This has become especially crucial during the pandemic, as roles have been adjusted or stretched to reduce the number of employees coming and going from a home. 

A contract can be as simple or as exhaustive as you’d like, she says. At the minimum, it needs to cover job duties, responsibilities, schedule, compensation, benefits and any paid time off offered. It's also important to spell out the terms of separation, a non-disclosure agreement, and/or social media policy.

Agencies will often provide families with templated agreements. But if you’re setting up the terms of your employment one-on-one, use a free sample contract from Care.com HomePay or the A to Z Nanny Contract, which costs $40. 

Also consider checking out Hand in Hand’s employer guidebook, which aims to support domestic employers in identifying and communicating their needs in order to establish a fair workplace.

2. Pay your domestic workers on the books 

Caregivers paid under the table are missing out on crucial benefits like unemployment or sick pay. That’s why paying them “on the books” or legally is the first step to ensuring your caregiver will feel treated fairly and professionally by your family, says Davis. 

“In addition to knowing you both have peace of mind from a legal and compliance standpoint, this ensures that your caregiver will be paid on time for all hours worked, and you’ll be following the laws on overtime within your city and state,” says Davis. 

Plus, the pandemic has only served to emphasize the need for legal pay. “Looking forward into a likely second wave of COVID-19 and potentially future shelter in place orders, being paid on the books is necessary for caregivers to be able to access government benefits like unemployment,” says Davis.

For more information, check out Fair and Legal Pay, a new resource for household employers and their employees.

3. Offer a fair wage

A report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that around 23% of domestic workers are paid below their state's minimum wage, with undocumented workers and live-in employees suffering the most. 

Meanwhile, the typical (median) domestic worker is paid $12.01 per hour, much less than other workers (who are paid $19.97 per hour), according to recent data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The federal government mandates that domestic workers must be paid minimum wage as the hourly minimum, but in most cities, this income is not enough to support oneself or a family, points out Yoon. 

The nationwide average is $15 an hour, according to the most recent data from Care.com. Here’s more info that can help you land on a fair rate.

4. Pay overtime

“Live-in domestic workers are not entitled to federal overtime protections,” notes Yoon. This means a nanny could work well over 40 hours in a seven-day work week and miss out on time-and-a-half, which is a given for live-out nannies. However, caregivers are protected in nine states — California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Oregon — all of which have special overtime laws for live-in employees, notes Davis. 

Specific overtime laws vary from state to state, so make sure to check your local requirements. But regardless of federal and local laws, overtime should be a given, says Daniel Butcher, founder and CEO of Los Angeles Nannies, as well as an industry veteran. 

5. Offer healthcare coverage and paid sick days

Just one in five domestic workers receives health insurance coverage through their job, notes the EPI. 

“Assistance with healthcare and sick time has never been more important,” says Davis. “As with any other job, domestic workers sometimes fall ill and should be able to use sick time to recuperate and recover. However, many domestic workers continue to come to work so that their illness does not disrupt their employer's work schedules.” 

This is a case for having a clear sick time policy and assisting employees with their health care expenses to ensure they are getting the medical care they need when they need it, she notes. (This will also decrease your family's risk of falling ill due to a caregiver who can't “afford” to miss work.) “By the same token, when a family member becomes ill, have a policy in place as to what symptoms your caregiver feels comfortable exposing themselves to right now and what may constitute an unsafe environment for them to work in,” says Davis.

6. Discuss and consider offering a variety of benefits 

From cell phone reimbursement and mileage reimbursement to continuing education and holiday gifts or bonuses (one to two weeks of an employee’s normal pay is considered generous), domestic employers ought to consider certain benefits that will ensure their employees feel appreciated and valued, says Davis. 

While providing a comprehensive package might not be in the budget, it’s important to have a conversation with a new hire about which offerings they would most appreciate, which can then be prioritized, says Butcher. “Perhaps a new hire values employer paid healthcare — full or stipend — or paid time off and may be willing to accept a lesser dollar pay in order to include these or other benefits,” notes Butcher.  

7. Provide opportunities for growth

This is key for supporting employees and ensuring they will continue working with your family for the long term, says Davis. “A raise of $1-$2 per hour each year, or smaller raises to help adjust for inflation and rising cost of living expenses, will keep your employees engaged and confident that your family's jobs are still competitive in the market,” she notes. 

Pay increases should go hand-in-hand with regular communication. “Having regular check-ins will give your family the opportunity to provide feedback in real time and to have a sense of how content your employees are in their roles, or if there are simple adjustments your family can make to make their jobs a little easier,” says Davis.

8. Tell your representatives to support legislation that will protect domestic workers

The National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would offer long overdue guidelines and standards, closing legal loopholes that currently exclude domestic workers from certain federal labor and civil rights laws, establishing fair scheduling practices, providing grants for domestic worker training programs and calls for paid sick days, affordable healthcare and retirement savings providing support for survivors of sexual harassment and creating a new federal task force to enforce domestic workers' rights.

Yoon suggests calling your senators and telling them to support the passage of the Bill of Rights. You can also urge them to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, which would offer domestic workers hazard and extended unemployment pay.  

9. Take action or donate

You can also take action or offer funds to various organizations that support domestic workers: 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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