Economy

Without Labor Protections, Domestic Workers Earn Low Wages And Receive No Benefits

America’s domestic home help workers, most of them female minorities, earn low wages and often receive no retirement or health benefits because they lack basic labor protections, according to a first-of-its-kind survey of more than 2,000 domestic workers in 14 American cities. The report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and affiliated groups found that nearly a quarter of nannies, caregivers, and home health workers make less than the minimum wage in the states in which they work, and nearly half — 48 percent — are paid less than needed to adequately support a family.

Ninety-five percent of domestic workers are female, according to the survey, and the wage gaps that persist throughout the American economy are especially prevalent in the industry. More than half of domestic workers are minority, with 54 percent identifying as Latina, African-American, or Asian. The median hourly wage of white domestic workers is $2.13 an hour higher than it is for Latinas and Asians and $1.14 an hour higher than it is for blacks. But across the industry, wages are incredibly low:

Live-in workers have especially low wages. The median wage for that group is just $6.15 an hour, and 67 percent are paid below their state’s minimum wage. Overall, 70 percent of domestic workers are paid less than $13 an hour, and less than 9 percent make more than $18 an hour. Just 4 percent of live-in workers make more than $18 an hour.

For undocumented workers, who make up a significant portion of the domestic workforce, the wage situation is even worse:

It isn’t just wages, though. Less than 2 percent of all domestic workers receive retirement or pension benefits, and only 9 percent work for employers who pay into Social Security, according to the report. Nearly two-thirds live without health insurance, and only 4 percent receive employer-provided health care. Just 8 percent work for employers who provide a contractual agreement, while two-thirds work under verbal agreements that offer few protections.

The reason the situation is so dire for domestic workers is because they are excluded from standard labor protections. The National Labor Relations Act does not cover domestic workers, meaning they have no guaranteed right to organize or form unions to bargain for wages and benefits. Federal workplace discrimination laws also largely exclude domestic workers because they apply to businesses with multiple employees. As a result, domestic workers are often subject to wage theft and rarely paid for overtime.

States and localities have undertaken efforts in recent years to expand such rights to domestic workers, but many have failed. In 2010, New York passed a law granting basic rights to domestic workers, and Montgomery County, Maryland enacted a similar law in 2008. The most recent high-profile attempt to enshrine domestic worker rights failed in October, when California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights because he said it left “a number of unanswered questions.” The California law would have covered more than 200,000 of the state’s domestic workers and was opposed by the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.