There are at least 2.2 million people working at a home in America. And I don’t mean working from home; I mean working for a home—our homes, specifically. I am talking about domestic workers: the nannies, home care workers, and house cleaners who do the essential task of taking care of us and our loved ones.
But let’s be clear: Just because domestic workers work inside our homes does not mean they are less-than-real workers. Domestic work is real work—work that deserves real pay and real benefits. They may be essential to our families, but they are not part of our families. Many of these workers have their own families whom they need to feed and take care of. As Carolyn Reed, a domestic worker and organizer in New York City, said, “I don’t need a family, I need a job.”
We need to make this distinction, because with the distinction come the basic rights and protections we expect to have for our own jobs. However, as things currently stand under federal labor law, there are few defined workplace standards for domestic workers. Specifically, domestic work was not included as a protected category of work within the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). This allows employers to get away with paying less, forcing longer hours, or even committing abuse or harassment without recourse. Which means that all too many domestic workers—of whom 92 percent are women and over half people of color—find themselves without an easy or clear legal avenue to report abusive behavior.
Does it sound sexist? Does it sound racist? That’s because it is. The exclusion of domestic workers from the original 1935 NLRA was part of a concession to get Southern Democrats in Congress to vote for the bill. These Southern Democrats—many of whom had a staff of domestic workers themselves—were, of course, unwilling to allow this predominantly Black female workforce the right to organize for better wages, or even basic workplace protections.
Because of these legal barriers, domestic workers were long considered unorganizable. It’s already unnecessarily difficult to organize under US labor law, but when you don’t have even these basic protections, it can seem impossible. Yet domestic workers are redefining what is possible today.
How are domestic workers doing it? They are taking advantage of the “disruptor” tech companies that are trying to redefine work for millions of Americans. Specifically, they are leveraging the aggregation of workers that tech platforms enable to improve pay and conditions for workers. Handy is a tech company that aggregates thousands of for-hire workers, including house cleaners, under the umbrella of a single app, similar to what Uber does with drivers. While many saw this (rightfully so, given the track record of other app companies) as a tool for more worker exploitation, domestic workers also saw an opportunity.
For all the legal reasons and history outlined above, it has always been notoriously difficult for domestic workers to join together and collectively bargain. But there are also physical barriers—there is nothing connecting domestic workers in one household to another. There’s no list or mechanism by which workers can find each other. And long hours with no paid time off has prevented many domestic workers from meeting outside of working hours. That is, until now.
It certainly wasn’t the original purpose, but the gig economy broke down the physical barriers and aggregated workers onto online platforms. This created an opportunity for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the nation’s leading voice for the respect and dignity of domestic workers, to organize domestic workers on those platforms. Without the workers, the gig economy doesn’t exist—and there’s power in that.
The domestic worker movement used this power to catalyze real action from Handy that will apply to workers in three different states. And after two years of negotiation, advocates for domestic workers won an agreement that includes $15-an-hour minimum pay, paid time off—paid for by the company (20 days per year for those who work 40 hours a week)—occupational accident insurance, and a formal process to address workplace concerns, with anti-retaliation protections. But most importantly, these conditions are legally enforceable through a private agreement—worker advocates literally wrote protections into a private contract with input directly from domestic workers, something they could not count on politicians to do.
What’s even better, advocates for domestic workers won these agreements in states with deep histories of racism and discrimination, some of the same states whose white congressmen once fought so hard to exclude Black domestic workers from NLRA and OSHA protections. The agreement with Handy will first be tested in Kentucky, Florida, and Indiana—all “right to work” states, where the legal balance of power between corporations and workers is tilted massively in favor of the former. It goes to show that even with the chips stacked heavily against them, domestic workers can join together and win. Now, house cleaners that work for Handy in those states will be guaranteed $15 an hour and paid time off for the first time in history.
Let’s be clear, however: Domestic workers still need lasting protections enshrined into law. They need to finally be covered by the NLRA, the OSHA, and other labor laws. And all workers need a guaranteed floor of $15 an hour, paid time off, and more—this includes Uber and Lyft drivers, who are currently leaving those apps in droves, using their power to withhold their labor until the tech giants offer better pay and benefits.
Domestic workers, like Uber and Lyft drivers, couldn’t wait anymore, so they acted—and they won. This is an achievement for the labor movement and all workers to celebrate. And the beginning of a new phase of learning from this innovative path they’ve charted.