By Emma Specter, Vogue
It’s been a long and often painful year and a half for domestic workers. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in the U.S., many childcare workers, health aides, housekeepers, and others who provide in-home care were abruptly let go without severance. Even those who kept their jobs were faced with an impossible quandary: Stay home and lose wages, or go into work while a deadly viral disease ravaged the world?
Labor activist Ai-jen Poo, who serves as director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), has been organizing domestic workers to fight for fairer wages and better working conditions for more than two decades. The NDWA established a COVID-19 relief fund for domestic workers and has been instrumental in pointing out the dangers that domestic workers in the U.S.—the vast majority of whom are women—continue to face. Recently, Poo spoke to Vogue about how the last year has impacted home care work, the unique challenges that the pandemic has placed on the AAPI community, and what’s currently at stake for domestic workers; read the full interview below.
Vogue: What are some of the biggest obstacles that domestic workers are facing right now in the U.S.?
Ai-jen Poo: Even before the pandemic, care workers—nannies, house cleaners, home care workers, et cetera—were working for poverty wages without paid time off, paid sick days, health care, or any job security. Actually, 82% of domestic workers didn’t have a single paid sick day coming into the pandemic.
Yeah, so there was a tremendous amount of insecurity there to begin with. When the stay-at-home orders came down over a year ago, people started to lose their jobs and income. So many of our members were just worried about how they were going to keep their families safe and put food on the table, and then you had a group of workers who were continuing to work as essential workers; I’m thinking about people like Suzy Rivera, who was a home care worker in Texas. Before the pandemic, she worked 110 hours per week. I don’t even know how she did it. During the pandemic, her hours got reduced to 80 hours per week, and at first, she had a hard time getting PPE. She realized right away that she was going to be the only lifeline to so many of her clients who were elderly or people with disabilities—people who were going to be some of the most vulnerable to the virus itself. So she kept working and is still working 80 hours a week, all day, without health care, for $12 an hour after being a home care worker for 40 years. She’s in her early 60s and has a wife who is immunocompromised, so she’s also a family caregiver. It’s just a lot of responsibility to serve and support your clients and make sure that people are safe and healthy and have a good quality of life in a pandemic while you’re caring for your own family and worried about their safety and trying to survive on poverty wages. It’s just been a really, really devastating year and change, and that’s why we’re working so hard to make sure that as we start to chart our path to recovery from the pandemic, care workers and caregivers are front and center. We need to invest in our workers for the future and make sure that we’re treating them as essential, not just recognizing them that way.
Do you think the pandemic has changed the way we look at domestic work and care work at all?
You know, I do. For years, we were chipping away at this kind of cultural norm in our country, where we thought about care as a personal burden or responsibility. If you had kids, you were struggling with managing childcare or managing care for an aging parent or loved one. If you couldn’t figure it out, it was kind of your personal failure, right? What the pandemic did was help us see that we’re all struggling with the same challenges because we don’t have the kind of infrastructure and support in place that we need to take care of our families while we’re working. So this idea that we should, as a country, be investing in our caregiving programs and policies—and our workers—as essential infrastructure, I think, came about because of that awakening that we had of, like, This is crazy. This is impossible. And it’s not my fault.
Have you seen a rise in mental-health challenges and safety concerns among the domestic workers you work with who are members of the AAPI community, particularly since the Georgia shootings?
Right from the beginning of the pandemic, we were hearing a lot of concerns about mental and emotional health for caregivers. Our members were basically saying that so many of the caregivers they talked to were feeling really isolated, really fearful, really worried about safety, so we immediately created a text line for caregivers to get emotional support from their peers and get access to health resources. That was just from the devastation of the pandemic, but these attacks on AAPI elders and caregivers are something else, especially when care workers actually tend to skew older demographically. In California, we’ve seen elderly women getting attacked on the street. First, you’re worried about your own safety from COVID-19, you’re worried about the safety of your clients, and you’re worried about the safety of your family. Then on top of that, you worry about getting attacked on the street. And then on top of that, if you don’t have your immigration status documented, you’re also worried about the potential for deportation and being separated from your family. That’s a concern for a lot of undocumented workers. At the same time, I think we’ve seen a lot of resilience within the AAPI community, especially from AAPI women, who’ve been rising to the occasion. Women are disproportionately concentrated in all kinds of essential sectors; they’re continuing to work to keep us safe and continuing to figure out how to provide for their families. They’re also helping to organize community responses to racist attacks and bringing us together to support the families of victims and heal and find solutions. It’s just incredible to bear witness to.
There’s probably no easy answer to this, but what do you think individuals can do to better support domestic workers at this time?
Right now is the pivotal moment to support care workers because President Biden is transforming care jobs and wants to invest in home- and community-based services so that more elderly adults and people with disabilities can have care. That is on the agenda right now, and Congress is debating on it. It’s a once-in-several-generations opportunity to transform these jobs just like we did in the 1930s, when we took many manufacturing jobs that used to be dangerous sweatshop jobs that a lot of immigrants did and turned those into pathways for economic mobility for several generations. Right now, we have a chance to set that in motion for care work. If we don’t let our members of Congress know that that is a priority, my big fear is that we’ll move forward with a job plan that really only provides jobs for men. I just don’t see how we can allow that to happen, given what women have been through this year, from the millions of women who’ve been pushed out of the workforce because of caregiving challenges to the millions of care workers who’ve kept our families and loved ones safe. We have a moment right now, and we have to see it through.