Who Cares? (Part 3): Domestic Workers w/Ai-jen Poo - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Who Cares? (Part 3): Domestic Workers with Ai-jen Poo.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
Ai-jen Poo: Literally, care connects us all. Literally. I don't care where you come from, what work you do, what your experiences, where you live… it really does connect us.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
This is one episode in a series of episodes about care in America. In our previous episode, we talked about care at the end of life. And this week, we’re talking about the kind of care that picks up where we leave off. The kind of care that shows up when our loved ones are sick or dying and we can’t be there around the clock. The kind of care that wipes our babies’ butts and feeds them and snuggles them while we go to work. The kind of care that scrubs the floors or does the dishes for us.
It’s all the work we talked about in the first episode of this series with Eve Rodsky — the work we do for our loved ones, but done by people who are paid to do it when we can’t or when we don’t want to.
We’ve had all of these conversations in and around the pandemic — and if you’re listening in the far future, it’s a weird time. For everyone. Unemployment rates have hit records highs in the U.S. And the pandemic has been an absolute crisis for domestic workers especially. The National Domestic Workers Alliance found in their research that less than a third of care workers received the $1,200 stimulus check, and many have been unable to make rent payments for at least six consecutive months.
Domestic workers tend to be women — primarily women of color — but today, we’re talking to Jonny, a house cleaner who lives in Seattle, Washington.
Jonny: My name is Jonny Arenas. I live here in Seattle, Washington, and so proud to be part of the NDWA, National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Jonny has been cleaning houses since he was 18, when he worked with his mother. Pre-pandemic, his days went a little something like this…
Jonny: I wake up like at 6 a.m. I do like everybody does, prepare breakfast, getting ready and going to catch the bus, and I work like five hours or four hours, depending how the house, it is big or small, and just hop back around maybe like at 3 or 4 p.m. for the transportation. I live in the downtown Seattle, and I have a clients that they live in north Seattle. And I have to catch one bus in order for the transportation that's maybe take a little time. (Inaudible) every single day before it was I so happy and grab my stuff and all the things that I need for go cleaning service.
Each cleaning takes about five hours, and he’s worked for many of his clients for years. He is in their home, scrubbing their toilets and rinsing their glasses, dusting their family portraits. He is caring for them, and he cares for them.
Jonny: And in each house, I leave my energy.
Jonny has good energy, the kind you would want someone to leave in your home. And his clients appreciate him. They tell him, “You’re like family to us.”
Jonny: My clients, they don't pay me sick days or day off. I go more with my schedule. If I work from Monday to Friday, I take it Saturday and Sunday off. Or I can take like, maybe Sunday off and I take a other day from the week taking off. I need to recharge my battery, go to the next day and clean the house, but then, I don't have it like sick days. Nothing like that.
There are a lot of industries like this in America — many jobs, maybe at this point, come with no guarantees and no safety net. You don’t work? You don’t get paid. My friend Moe — a hairstylist — I’ve said this on the podcast maybe a hundred times, but I’ll say it again, she was back in her salon a week after her husband Andy died by suicide. Because bills need to get paid. And not with good vibes. With U.S. dollars.
Jonny is one of those domestic workers who does still have work during the pandemic.
Jonny: I want to talk just like what happened with me with a few clients that I have, right? One day after a couple months later, the pandemic blowed up, I can use that word? Blowed up on March, and everybody cancel my cleaning service. One client, she told me, “Johnny, for your safety, because I know you don't have your own transportation and you're using the metro service, that's a bus, is staying home. I want to help you.” That made me feel valued. And I want to use the word “lucky” in that happened with me. I feel my other colleagues around the nation, maybe they happen, would them, maybe they're not.
Only one of his remaining clients — in a city of extreme wealth — offered to pay him for the work he couldn’t do safely because of the pandemic. One. And he considers himself lucky. Even if the work is much more intense now.
Jonny: I taking care from the living room to the kitchen, bathrooms, and... if I used to be doing before now, I'm gonna repeat it doing twice. I clean their handles. I clean everything for what's most like we are touching all the time, and we're leaving over there some kind of germs with the hands. And I sanitize twice the bathrooms, because that's what we had to keep it so clean and the whole house. The shoes right now is my, ah, one of my priorities and the door handles. Because in the shoes we're walking outside, and I want to say this, outside a lot of people sneezing, coughing and everything going to the dirt. And you are walking outside. Because I'm doing this for my own protection, I'm doing it for my clients too. A few clients that I have right now, they say, "You are not just a person who come here to clean the house. You are part of my family. If you are fine. I know I am fine, too. And I'm taking care of you right now. Just ask me what you need for keeping the house sanitized and safety. Because saying, you are my priority, too." And I'm doing cleaning, sanitizing more than what used to before. Because I care about others.
“You are a part of my family,” his clients told him. You are a part of our family, as a person who comes into our family home and cares for us. And we are happy to… get you what you need to KEEP SANITIZING OUR HOUSE. Which is… you know… I don’t know if that’s really “family level,” but it is also the least they can do while he risks his own health to clean their home.
Jonny pointed out that he doesn’t have sick days, or paid leave. And Jonny is so positive and upbeat while we’re talking, but I have to ask him how it’s really, really going?
Jonny: This pandemic, this crisis? I never expected that I'm going to be feeling in my life. But it changed a few things. It made me think stronger than before. Financially? Not like other people, that they have like a little saving. Financially... I am broken. OK, I've got to be honest, I am working and saving for just pay the rent and just live.
He is broke. In episode one, Eve called the wave of women leaving the workforce “fucking evitable,” and Jonny’s situation is also… very evitable. It’s a direct result of domestic work being left out of our labor regulations, it’s a result of a lack of a safety net, even as Jonny and his friends try to create their own safety net through mutual aid.
Jonny: It try me to, you know, thinking of a future. I'm been practicing from a long time ago, and for the people that I know here, even sharing sometimes food with my other friends and, “Jonny, I have it rice. You want rice? Well, I have it like a oil, you know cooking oil, and we can share.” And if we are working together, like community? We can pass through all this.
After this break, we’ll talk to Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
We’re back, with Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy group for domestic workers — the people who actually do all of that care work. People like Jonny and the friends who are sharing rice and cooking oil and advocating for better pay, sick days and basic workers rights.
Ai-jen: I'm talking about the nannies who take care of our kids, talking about the house cleaners who help us keep our home safe and maintain sanity in our chaotic lives. I'm talking about the home care workers who support our loved ones with disabilities to live independently in their homes or take care of our aging parents and grandparents and make sure that they have a dignified quality of life. Everyone who does caregiving and cleaning services in the home, and it's mostly women of color — a lot of Black women and immigrant women of color who do this work — and across the board, regardless of who does it, it's just always been so undervalued in our society. And it's so weird to me still to this day, given just how essential and how fundamental the work is to all of our lives and the people that we love the most in the world.
Ai-jen calls this kind of work “the work that makes other work possible.” When you think about it like that — as work that makes the other work possible — it takes on a whole new kind of significance. Home health aides made it possible for me to sleep a few hours a night when my husband was on hospice care, so I could wake up, take care of our baby, and then take care of my husband. Daycare workers are why I could make the first season of this podcast. And the second and the third. Care is the thing — like Ai-jen said — that connects us all.
Just like care work is devalued within our family structures — one of Eve Rodsky’s Toxic Time Messages was that some time is worth more than others — it’s devalued in our economy as well.
Nora: There's a connection between the work that we typically see very little value in economically and who does that work.
Ai-jen: Direct connect. Facts. Exactly. It is so crazy. My friend Heather McGhee often describes this world as being ordered by a hierarchy of human value, you know, where we value the lives and the contributions of some over others. And the way we value work is a direct reflection of those hierarchies, you know? And that in so many ways is what we must disrupt in the 21st century.
But right now, domestic work is ranked very, very low. The workers that Ai-jen has been advocating with for decades, like Jonny, have no paid sick leave, no health insurance, no protections. And the fact that their work is often invisible — that they go inside a house where they work alone — also means that these workers are often disconnected from each other. And if you don’t have coworkers to compare notes with, to organize with, to tell you what is and is not normal or acceptable… it leaves you even more vulnerable.
Ai-jen: In some ways I call it the Wild West, because you never quite know what you're going to get. You might find a wonderful employer who really values your work and sees you as part of their care squad and treats you with respect and honors your contributions and even pays for your health care. I know those stories. And then on the other end of the spectrum, there's cases of human trafficking, rape and sexual assault that I've also dealt with, all kinds of abuses. And then everything in between. Because there isn't a clear set of standards and practices. It's kind of a free for all. And so if you happen to luck out and find a great employer, then you're in luck. And then, there's a thousand ways to be out of luck in this situation. And that's, I think, what we're really trying to address with our work.
There's layers of context that create a high degree of vulnerability to abuse for domestic workers. So one part of it is domestic work has always been associated with women first and foremost. And as a profession, it's always been associated with women and women of color, especially Black women. Many of the original first domestic workers were enslaved Black women. And that legacy has really shaped how this workforce has been treated also in our law and policy. So not just culturally. In the 1930s, when Congress was developing our labor laws that we now kind of take for granted as our kind of worker rights in this country, Southern Dixiecrats refused to support those laws if they protected domestic workers and farm workers who were Black workers at the time. So there's this really long history of explicit exclusion from labor rights and from treatment as real workers. And it's also reflected back in our culture where we still refer to the work as "help," you know, instead of like, a profession. Which it is, right? For so many people for generations.
Ai-jen has been doing this work since college, when she started answering phones at a domestic violence shelter.
Ai-jen: The women who called the hotline, they called about their experiences of abuse and needing support. But they also called about their struggles with figuring out how to take care of their kids while working long hours and earning poverty wages and no matter how hard they worked, not being able to make ends meet. So it was about the abuse and the violence, but it was about the entire situation that so many women are in right now, where you can just work so hard and do everything right and still not be able to make it work for yourself and your family. And it's crazy, and it's inhumane. And so I just remember thinking, like, how could it be that there's so many women who are working so hard and they're working more than full time jobs and they still can't pay the rent.
In the decades since she first started answering phones, Ai-jen’s work — and the work at the NDWA — has focused in on a very important question.
Ai-jen: How do we make these low-wage jobs that so many immigrant women and women of color, Black and brown women, are working in, how do we actually make these jobs good jobs? Jobs that are dignified, where you can take pride and support your family? Just the basics. You know, and so many of the women at the time were working in service jobs, and it was everything from care to restaurant work to nail salons and beauty parlors. And it was always the domestic workers when we would gather for health fairs or "know your rights" sessions, the domestic workers came consistently, I think, because it was pretty clear how powerful being in a group and working collectively with other women could be when they were so used to being so isolated at work, you know? Hidden behind closed doors. That just breaking out of that isolation and knowing, realizing that you're not alone and connecting with other women in your situation and doing something about your reality was just like, immediately clicked for so many domestic workers that I met, and I really haven't looked back since.
The issues with domestic work — a lack of rights and protections — have always made this work, the important work, really hard. But now? It’s harder than ever.
Ai-jen: It's been a very, very long time. And never in my wildest nightmares could I have imagined the level of crisis and devastation that people are experiencing right now. It is a full blown depression. Right? So what we saw early on in March was dramatic and immediate losses of jobs and income. And most domestic workers didn't have… 82% of domestic workers didn't have a single paid sick day going into the pandemic. And the wages are very low. So it's not like there was money to stock up on groceries or supplies or anything that you would need to have any confidence that you could figure out how to take care of your family as you lost your jobs and your income.
And so ever since then, it's been about really listening to the different struggles that workers are facing, everything from food insecurity to housing insecurity and figuring out how to keep themselves and their children safe without access to health care.
And then you have a whole set of domestic workers who are continuing to work as essential workers. And, you know, I'm thinking about home care workers, who are the only lifeline to some of the people who are really vulnerable to the virus itself, like older people and people with chronic illnesses and people with disabilities. And they're going to work, and they didn't have PPE or access to testing or treatment or health care or occupational safety and health protections. And they still got out of bed every day and still do and figure out how they get to their clients and take care of them. And meanwhile, their kids are home from school trying to figure out remote learning. They don't have good care options for their own kids. So it's just been a crisis of impossible choices for this work force, and a really powerful reminder of how essential the work is to so many people who may not have thought about it that way.
And I fear that we have thus far failed our essential workers, and that we haven't provided the protections that they deserve. Why is it that home care workers have to pay out of pocket if they want a safer mode of transportation to reduce their exposure or minimize the risk of exposure when their wages haven't increased at all? Why are they paying out of pocket for PPE to keep themselves and their clients safe still? Why don't they have access to health care or child care? So that's the choice before us as a country, is how are we going to take care of these essential workers who have cared for us through this unprecedented and devastating crisis? And what are the opportunities we have to really rethink and reset the way that we care for each other, the way that we recognize and protect workers, to ensure that as we recover from this crisis, that we're recovering into an economy and a future that's much more equitable, much more sustainable and much safer for all of us.
A lot of this sounds familiar to the way that Eve Rodsky talked about household labor in the first episode of this series — how work that is done around the home is undervalued, and that little has changed in our American attitudes about the value of that work within a family structure.
Ai-jen: Today, we we know how the pandemic has disproportionately affected women of color and Black women, and that the devastating loss where women are leaving the workforce in droves because of the impossibility of balancing their care needs and work in a pandemic, is also... it's disproportionately Black women and women of color who are impacted. And just all of these inequities in our economy and in our access to the safety net just reinforce each other. And domestic workers have really never had protections as workers and never really had access to a safety net. There's so many women, for example, who are caring for the aging, the elderly, who are also aging and having to work into their 70s in a pandemic. You know? And it's really, really scary.
That’s something Jonny sees too, when he connects with other people in his line of work. He knows people who have been cleaning houses for decades, and they have no nest egg, no financial security. Like Dave in our second care episode, they can’t afford to be sick. They can’t afford to die.
Jonny: They don't have nobody else, and completely, they're elderly and they don't have nothing, you know, and surviving for whatever they can have.
The issues with domestic work are not equally distributed; there are deep inequities in the way that Black and brown domestic workers are being affected, and how those inequities are being compounded by the pandemic.
We did a survey, for example, of Black domestic workers who are also immigrants, just to get a slice of where we saw many of the kind of structural inequities kind of coming together. And what we found were that 70 percent of Black immigrant domestic workers surveyed have either lost their jobs or received reduced hours of pay. And so we're seeing just like dramatic losses in income that will just feed already really dramatic inequality. 65% percent said that they're fearful or at risk of eviction in the next three months. And 49% percent of those are afraid of seeking assistance or resources from any level of government. And 73% percent have not received PPE, who are doing care work for vulnerable populations. So it just gives you a sense of like the incredible insecurity that so many workers who we’re counting on to care for us are dealing with.
Jonny: I want to tell you, in general, that who we are is we're essential workers, we're in front of the line. We take just what we need. But that's that's not enough. I hope people change the way to look and just value our job, because we are not domestic workers, we are humans too.
There are ways that we could protect and help humans like Jonny… and we’ll get into it after the break.
We’re back. The problems that domestic workers face in America — people who provide care for us, who work at daycare centers, or as nannies, who work at nail salons or clean offices or homes or care for our elderly — the problems they face are really a matter of basic rights. They don’t have sick leave, or paid time off… and everyone gets sick. Everyone needs time off.
Ai-jen: There is a fundamental design flaw in the business model in the care economy. And I just want to say this for the record. Like, I am a person who believes if the market can solve a problem, it totally should. I'm all for problems getting solved and for the market playing a role in that. And I believe that care is a problem the market can't solve, and that there's a reason why all of these businesses are reliant upon a strategy that overcharges families and underpays workers. Like, if that is your business model, there's something fundamentally wrong. And it goes back to my point earlier, if this is not a problem that we can solve on our own or that the market can solve, we need a collective solution. And this is the whole role of government, is to help us figure out stuff that the market can't and that we can't do on our own.
So what are those things? How do we do this and what do we need?
Ai-jen: Right now, we're kind of trying to figure out how to shape the economic recovery plans coming out of the COVID crisis. And there's a way in which, you know, coming out of recessions and previous recovery plans have always been about stimulus and jobs and how do you infuse through jobs programs and other forms of stimulus, give the economy like a jumpstart. And oftentimes the jobs programs are mainly jobs in construction. They're infrastructure, so-called infrastructure jobs. And they're referred to as "shovel ready." And we've been trying to make the argument that actually there's no more shovel ready or job ready jobs than care jobs. And in the context of economic recovery, it's like such a win win, because when you create good jobs in child care or in elder care, home care, those jobs are benefiting those workers and their families. But they're also enabling so many other people to work and to get back to work. And and so we call them job-enabling jobs, to really try to say, hey, if we're going to have a real recovery, if we're going to have an equitable recovery, like let's talk about some jobs that women do. You know, let's talk about some jobs that women of color do, and let's talk about how we can not just recover, but we can do so equitably.
We've got ten thousand people turning 65 every day. We've got 4 million babies born every year, and we are all working outside the home because we can't afford not to. And we have no infrastructure at all in place to support our needs when it comes to taking care of our families. So we're expected to then work it out. And really, it's just like a very, very tiny percentage of the population that can afford real options. The vast majority of us are just kind of alone out there trying to navigate it and feeling bad about ourselves, and it's ridiculous. So that's the thing that I feel the most passionate about in the context of our economic recovery is like, we can fix this. We know how to fix this. We know how to build the public policy systems. And we actually have systems that we could invest in tomorrow if Congress passed a bill that would enable good home care, better pay for the home care worker who came and supported you through those final days of hospice care. I mean, it's not rocket science.
We could put money in our Medicaid system, which is how most people get access to long-term care in this country because most people can't afford private long-term care insurance. So they end up impoverishing themselves, depleting their assets and, in order to be eligible for Medicaid. And right now, there's a whole bunch of places where you can really only get nursing home care through Medicaid. And what we could do is make home care an option for everyone who gets Medicaid. And we could establish wage standards to make sure that no one who is working through the Medicaid program earns less than 18 dollars, 20 dollars, whatever the rate is. And that people have and they have health care and access to covid testing. Like all of this is totally possible.
Long term, my dream is that we establish a fund like Social Security, where we're all contributing, and we can all benefit, called Universal Family Care, where we can basically tap into the fund when we need child care or when we need paid leave or when we need long term care support for people with disabilities. Basically everything we need to take care of our families while we're working. And it would be so much more efficient and so much less expensive to basically collectivize the cost, share the risk associated with these needs, and have it be supported by public infrastructure and treated as a public good, which is what care is.
Nora: Which is what care is. And it's such a strange thing to be opposed to because every single person is going to die. And most of us are going to get sick first, like most of us will not have the luxury of just closing our eyes and never waking up. I've put a request in for that kind of death, but… just a nice long nap from which and I want to also...
Ai-jen: Or like a big Thelma and Louise moment, where they're driving off a cliff.
Nora: Yeah, I want a blaze of glory. Or I want a nap that I take fully dressed with makeup on lying on top of the covers with, like, a very intelligent book next to me, not a trashy magazine. I want people to be like, "And I mean, we found her with a New Yorker, and she'd obviously finished it. She'd read, she'd read it. It had not just sat there on her bedside for eight months. No, no, no, no, no. It was, it was weathered. She had enjoyed it.
That’s big-picture stuff. But there’s also the interpersonal part of this. The question I asked Ai-jen and Jonny is how, if we are in a position to hire someone to provide care for our family in any way — if we have a baby and hire a nanny or send them to day care, if we have a person come to clean our house to take care of an uncle, what can we do beyond a yard sign that says we appreciate essential workers?
Jonny: I hope everybody can change, and when your housecleaner, your caregiver, your nanny, you don't have to wait for something bad happen for helping them. Because we need a a sick pay, so we are right now, we are vulnerable to the virus. If we get the virus, imagine. We had to stay in home. And our income is shrinking more than that. And I hope this society can change the way to look at everything, and (inaudible). We have to touch our souls, our heart, because we are still human. We bleed. We can feel pain. But you don't give you any strength to your housecleaner. How would you want to be doing that in the future?
Ai-jen: I would say a couple of things. One is to make sure that every elected official and every candidate for office knows that you really care about these issues and that they're a reason why you're voting. So consider yourself a care voter.
And the other thing I would say is we have a whole set of resources that our website, employers.domesticworkers.org, that have really useful like checklists and guidelines and other ways of thinking about how do you have someone work in your home and have that relationship be as healthy as possible. And we have all kinds of Covid-specific checklists and guidelines that are really about helping you navigate all of the safety complexities in the relationship and have really up front conversations. Because at the end of the day, it's like you're really in it together. And the more communication and empathy and humanity you can bring to that relationship, literally the stronger it will be and the safer everyone will be.
I would also add that you ask the companies you work with — your kids’ daycare, your parents’ nursing home, if you use a service for somebody to clean your house — just ask how much they pay the people doing the work. Just, ask questions! Also, if you’re giving holiday gifts… controversial opinion here, just make it cash! And if you think someone isn’t charging enough to clean your house, pay them more! Don’t try to get a deal on PEOPLE!
Ai-jen: Literally care connects us all. Literally. I don't care where you come from, what work you do, what your experience is, where you live, it really does connect us.
In 2014, when my husband was sick and dying from brain cancer and entered home hospice care, I called a home health care agency to get some help. Calling that number, I felt like a failure. How could I not do all of this myself? Wasn’t it my job, as his wife? But I did need to sleep, and I asked for help between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. so I could do that. The first person they sent me was nine months pregnant, and I told her to please, please just go lay down. You’re not going to be turning over a 160-pound man. The next night, an absolute angel arrived. She came at 10, she left when I woke up at 6. She headed home and got her kids off to school, slept and then came back to my house. She was there for my husband when I could not be, helping him maintain his dignity in the face of death.
And what she did was worth so much more than the $35 an hour the agency charged me — which was a big stretch for me financially at the time. And I know she didn’t get that full $35.
So when Aaron died, and an online fundraiser helped me pay our bills, I took out some cash and mailed it to her. When she called to thank me, she told me that nobody had ever done that for her. And maybe nobody else could — I don’t know. But maybe, like with Jonny, nobody else thought of it.
When I researched the average pay for a home health aide while writing this, it was anywhere between 9 and 12 dollars… well below what a living wage would be in Minneapolis, which would be, according to the living wage calculator, at least $21 per hour. So she was being paid, most likely, less than a third of what it cost me to hire her through the agency. And the work she was doing was so important.
Ai-jen: It's so crazy to me that the people that we're counting on to take care of us can't take care of themselves or their own families doing the work that they do. It's literally the definition of insanity. It's like so upside down. And then the second thing I thought of is like how you were feeling in all of this. We are so taught that if we somehow can't figure out how to take care of the people that we love, it's because we're a failed partner or that we are a bad parent or a bad daughter, and that there's something defective in us, when in actuality there is no way that we can adequately care for the people that we love without help.
We can totally make these jobs better jobs, and we can make sure that every single person in your position has what they need to take care of the people that we love. And I think that that has to be our future. And your story and stories like it are what's going to get us there.
Next week, that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing. You’ve been sending in your stories of caring for people, of caring for so many people in and around and even before this pandemic, and that is our next episode, is how care is affecting all of you.
This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” It is written by me, Nora McInerny, so if there’s ever a problem with the narration where you’re like oh my god you said this thing wrong, I know, it was me, 100% my fault. Our production team is Phyllis Fletcher, Marcel Malekebu, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Hannah Meacock Ross and Jordan Turgeon. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. We are a production of American Public Media, APM. And… I think that’s it! I think that’s it, everybody.