Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Injustice Behind Locked Doors
They clean our homes, wash our clothes, and cook our meals so we can focus our attention on jobs and recreation. They take care of our young children so we can go to work and pursue our careers. They care for our frail, aging parents who, since we left for college, no longer share a home with us or live down the street. They provide the most intimate services for our families, often assisting our most vulnerable loved ones. They have enabled a revolution in the lives of women, liberating many from the hard choice between the household and the workplace. And yet, for all this they remain among the most poorly paid and most unprotected workers in the country. Domestic workers are overwhelmingly female (95%), predominantly Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander (54%) and a growing part of the workforce. Between 2004 and 2010 the number of domestic workers counted by the Census Bureau rose from 666,435 to 726,437. They work behind locked doors.
In 2012 the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted a study of the economic conditions of domestic workers. What they found will probably not surprise you. “Substandard working conditions are pervasive. . . . Wage rates are low, the work is often hazardous, and workers rarely have effective recourse to improve substandard conditions.” A few results of the survey are revealing:
- 23% of workers surveyed are paid below the state minimum wage and 70% are paid below $13 an hour. About half of all domestic workers are paid an hourly wage that is below the level needed to adequately support a family.
- Less that 2% receive retirement or pension benefits, and less than 9% work for employers who pay into Social Security. 65% do not have health insurance.
- Few domestic workers have a formal written contract with their employer, and of those who do, a third report having the contract violated within the 12 month period prior to the survey.
- Approximately one third of the domestic workers surveyed reported a workplace injury, or an illness contracted at the workplace, in the last 12 months before the study.
The challenges for live-in domestic workers and for undocumented workers are even more profound, as their real and perceived vulnerability makes challenging employer abuse very threatening.
Most surprising for those new to the concerns of domestic workers is the fact that they are specifically excluded from the normal worker protections we tend to assume are available to everyone in the United States. When the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935 it required the votes of Southern legislators who demanded that occupations heavily populated by African Americans be excluded so that they could not unionize. This policy, founded on racist domination and exploitation, sadly persists. Meanwhile, domestic workers are also excluded from the protections of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and from Federal anti-discrimination laws (Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and Age Discrimination in Employment Act) that only apply to workplaces with multiple employees.
The plight of low wage workers in general – retail employees, car wash workers, hotel housekeepers and janitorial staff, domestic workers, etc. – is increasingly of concern to those who care about a just and equitable economy. In many ways, domestic workers are among the most invisible of these occupations for, by definition, their work, and their working conditions, take place behind the locked doors of private homes, away from public scrutiny except on those occasions when a politician or potential appointee is caught failing to pay Social Security taxes.
As more and more women enter the workforce, both out of desire and need, the employment of domestic workers is no longer a feature of upper class life. Increasingly domestic workers play a significant role in middle class families as well. Their work, and the conditions of their employment, becomes all the more important. While domestic workers cannot unionize, they can organize to effect change in public policy. Groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and their allies, are working in many states, including Illinois, to pass a so-called “Domestic Worker Bill of Rights” which would extent legal rights and protections now denied to them. Religious groups can play a key role, helping to unlock the doors that hide both the value and the plight of domestic workers. In so doing we respond to the Song of Mary, upon whom God looked with favor in spite of her lowliness, and who promises that the lowly will be lifted up and the hungry filled with good things.
John H. Thomas
May 16, 2013
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