Maria, a former domestic worker, talks about her experiences in San Francisco, Monday, May 5, 2008. Maria came to San Francisco to be a caregiver for a family from her hometown in southern Mexico. The family paid her way here, then kept her in a house for a year, where she cared for a 78-year-old wheelchair-bound woman. They paid her $300 a month but sent her check directly to her family, so she never had any money. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Fifty years ago on August 28, thousands of protesters descended on Washington, DC. The protest is colloquially known as the March on Washington, but it’s worth remembering its full name: “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” In fact, the economic repression people of color experienced played a central role in galvanizing the march and in the demands the marchers made.
The protesters laid out ten concrete demands, half of which had economic implications: legislation barring discrimination in public housing, a federal jobs training and employment program, an increase in the minimum wage, an act barring discrimination by governments and contractors, and an expansion of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) “to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.”
Progress on these economic demands has been slow and bumpy. But that last bullet-point is a very concrete dream that has been denied. While the FLSA has been expanded since then, a whole category of workers—who are also disproportionately people of color—are still left out.
The Fair Labor Standards Act created a floor for wages and a ceiling on hours with overtime pay for extra work. But when it was crafted in the 1930s, certain workers were deliberately edged out of its protections. As Suzanne Mettler writes in Dividing Citizens, it was the first such bill to be written in gender-neutral terms, but it still defined which occupations fell under its purview in such a way that “the majority of low-paid women workers and non-white men, those who could have benefited most from national labor standards, were exempted from coverage.” Women’s retail and service jobs were mostly left out, as were agricultural jobs often held by people of color. Excluding the latter meant that “50 percent of southern African American employees, men and women,” were omitted. “The combined exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers also omitted near majorities of ‘Mexican American and American Indian women and men, as well as substantial numbers of Filipino-Americans and other Asian Americans’ from coverage,” Mettler writes.
These exclusions were driven by political considerations—Southern Democrats were staunchly against regulating agriculture—and constitutional considerations about the reach of the government’s ability to regulate commerce and the assumption that much of women’s domestic work was a different category altogether. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself stated, “No law ever suggested intended a minimum wages and hours bill to apply to domestic help.” They weren’t considered to be workers but simply “help.”
Forty years later, Congress expanded the FLSA to cover domestic workers. But a carve-out was again included that still left many out. Those who provide “care and fellowship” to the elderly and disabled were omitted. This has since been dubbed the companionship exemption. While in theory this should only exclude those who simply provide some company to the homebound, it has been so widely interpreted that homecare workers who bathe, feed and intensively care for the elderly and disabled find themselves without minimum wage and overtime protections. In 2007, the Supreme Court told Evelyn Coke, a black homecare worker, that her employer was acting legally when it refused to pay her overtime despite her long hours.