June Barrett left Jamaica and migrated to the United States, looking for safety. It was 2001, and her increasingly open identity as a queer woman was making life untenable back home. When it came up at work and she became a target for harassment, she decided it was time to go. Barrett followed her twin sister to Miami.
She got off a bus in Florida and went directly to her first job interview. She started working right away, in the home of an aging woman, caring for her as an off-the-books employee of the family. Barrett’s been a care worker ever since, and she’s proud of the career. It feels like she’s paying something forward. “When I give care, I think about me. I think about me being 54 years old and going down,” Barrett says, by way of explaining how she deals with difficult clients. “I think about: What if something should happen and someone should come in and give care to me?”
So it’s rewarding labor—but it has rarely provided Barrett the safety she sought in the United States. Rather, it has placed her in one of the lowest-paid, most predatory parts of our economy. Barrett has been routinely verbally abused, had her wages stolen, worked around the clock for days at a time without a break. And she has endured the sexual assault that is endemic to low-wage service work—jobs that easily form one of the largest sectors of the American workforce and that are, not coincidentally, overwhelmingly staffed by women.
“At one point, there was no work,” Barrett recalls as she begins telling me a story familiar to millions of women who have done jobs like hers. She had long avoided turning to agencies, because they take all the money and provide no support. But she was desperate. “They said, ‘OK, we have work’…. So I went to that work. And the very first night, the gentleman started touching me inappropriately, invited me to bed.” Barrett says she fought him off. “I’m strong. So thank God he didn’t rape me or whatever. But the touching and the inappropriate stuff—[it was] just vile.”
Barrett needed the assignment, so she kept quiet. “I know agencies: You can’t whine. You might be taken off that case, and they’ll throw you aside. Because they are getting so much money, they don’t want to upset their clients.”
We have belatedly begun a national conversation about sexual assault in the workplace. Women have outed powerful men as not merely boors but calculating predators. We’ve acknowledged this as a bipartisan problem, one that stretches from the White House to Hollywood. And legions of women have bravely spoken up to reveal just how unexceptional Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein are in all of our communities. Our collective dirty secret is being aired: On the left and right alike, we have allowed boys to be boys for far too long.