UCSB feminist studies professor and Department Chair Eileen Boris recently released a book analyzing the historical background and ongoing debates over labor conditions for homecare workers in the United States.
Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, a collaboration between Boris and Yale history assistant professor Jennifer Klein, argues that American social policy stigmatizes long-term homecare professions — such as nursing and housecleaning — as low-wage positions targeting minority, immigrant and low-income American women. While emphasizing the importance of these careers in the modern U.S. economy, the book discusses the roots of the American welfare state and its impact on the progress of these domestic workers.
According to Boris, labor laws governing these fields should reflect the importance of these workers’ roles in the service industry.
“We think anyone can work in homecare and that people shouldn’t be paid very much to do it [but] there’s a conflict because most people can’t afford to pay for decent care,” Boris said. “The problem also comes from a lack of financing of the service; most people can’t afford to pay for decent care yet providers can’t afford to live on these wages, which too often add up to less than minimum wage.”
Homecare workers have historically been left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act as they are categorized as “elder companions” and denied many basic labor rights. Last December, President Barack Obama proposed that the clause exempting domestic workers from the FLSA be removed, but officials will not release a decision on the proposal until this summer.
Including domestic workers in the labor act would ensure that homecare employers follow standards such as offering pay that meets minimum wage requirements and providing proper compensation for overtime work.
Third-year economics and sociology major Rian Dooley said Americans tend to undervalue homecare workers and fail to understand that such positions often yield the employees’ only source of income.
“I actually found it shocking when I initially learned that [homecare workers] were not covered even by basic labor laws such as minimum wage,” Dooley said. “Without protection under fair labor standards, we as a society could lose the services of these wonderful sustainers of life.”
According to Dooley, many Americans rely on domestic workers but neglect to recognize their importance in today’s society.
“While I would like to think that I can be self-sufficient and independent my whole life, there is a possibility that I, like millions of Americans, will require a homecare worker if my family cannot support me,” Dooley said. “These workers provide a vital service to people in need and deserve as much, if not more, respect than doctors and lawyers.”
Boris said she decided to publish her perspective after learning more about the system of household workers when she was pursuing services for one of her own family members. According to Boris, the original establishment of this sector included internal biases that make it prone to marginalizing certain demographics and social classes.
“I think one way to understand the present is to figure out how we got here and the existing literature on homecare only talked about the big union victories, like in Los Angeles in the 1990s,” Boris said. “Something like long-term care just didn’t develop on its own. People in power made decisions about how to pay for such work and how this vital service would be organized.”
UCSB feminist studies professor Leila Rupp said concerns about undervalued domestic workers reach far beyond the realm of women’s rights.
“[The book] shows really how this is a public policy issue,” Rupp said. “It’s an issue about race; it’s an issue about age; it’s an issue about class. It’s bringing all these together [to] show how critical an issue this is for the workers and the people who need homecare.”
Previous research by Boris and Klein is already being used in the debate; one of the team’s earlier papers is cited in the Department of Labor’s policy paper recommending the alteration of current homecare laws.
According to Boris, she and Klein are optimistic that Caring for America could help make the issues of domestic workers more widely understood and discussed.
“[Jennifer and I are] hoping readers of our book will understand that the people who need care and those who are their providers of care are similar [and] that [the] pitting of one against the other isn’t getting us anywhere,” Boris said. “We need to learn why [and] how the inadequate long-term care system that we have in the U.S. was made, and thus can be unmade. State policies turned women of color into low-waged workers, without respect or recognition, but we can change homecare into a decent job.”
According to Rupp, the federal administration has an obligation to look after all of its citizens and Americans have a responsibility to support and defend fellow laborers.
“I think one of the big issues is that the government has to step in and do something to protect homecare workers,” Rupp said. “It’s really a question of justice and what the right thing to do is as a society — not to be exploiting people who are providing such vital services.”