First-of-its-kind survey compiles the experience of domestic workers, highlights the grim nature of an unregulated industry

by Kim Krisberg

The collective experience of domestic workers — house cleaners, nannies and caregivers — often remains hidden from view. For all practical purposes, they work in regulation-free environments without the benefits of labor, wage and health protections or oversight. There are no HR departments in people's homes.

But a new survey released in November has pulled back the curtain on the conditions and experiences domestic workers face, documenting issues such as wage exploitation, preventable on-the-job injuries and the little — if any — power domestic workers have in improving their work environments and holding employers accountable. "Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work" is the first national study of domestic workers, filling an enormous quantitative data gap. The effort, led by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), surveyed nearly 2,100 privately employed nannies, caregivers and housecleaners in 14 metropolitan areas. All those surveyed were paid directly from their employer, not through an agency or government entity.

"A large part of gaining protections for domestic workers is bringing visibility to their work," Mariana Viturro, the alliance's deputy director told me. "Although the work they do is so important, it's done behind closed doors. (This survey) can help build recognition that (domestic workers) deserve the same protections that all workers have."

The survey confirmed that the nature of the domestic work environment is ripe for problems and exploitation. Data illustrate that substandard work environments, poor wages and hazardous work conditions are widespread: 23 percent of workers are paid below state minimum wage, 70 percent are paid less than $13 per hour, and the median hourly wage was $6.15, more than a dollar below the federal minimum wage. Sixty-five percent of domestic workers surveyed did not have health insurance, and only 4 percent received employer-provided health insurance.

Survey respondents also reported unhealthy work conditions:

• Thirty-five percent of workers surveyed said they worked long hours without breaks.

• Twenty-five percent of live-in workers had responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least five hours of sleep.

• Among workers who were fired, 23 percent said they were fired for complaining about work conditions.

• More than a third of workers lived with work-related wrist, shoulder, elbow or hip pain.

• Twenty-nine percent of house cleaners experienced skin irritation and 20 percent had trouble breathing in the prior year.

• Twenty-nine percent of caregivers suffered a back injury in the previous year.

The great majority of workers who experienced problems said they didn't speak up for fear of losing their jobs or having their immigration statuses used against them. Here's the story of one domestic worker featured in the report:

Having honed her child development skills as a teacher in the Philippines, Anna was hired as a live-in nanny for a family of four in Midtown Manhattan. Anna’s workday is long, and she works every day of the week. She begins at 6 a.m. when the children wake up, and ends around 10 p.m. when she finishes cleaning the kitchen, after having put the children comfortably to bed. Her work consists of multiple tasks: cleaning, laundry, preparing family meals, and tending to all the children’s needs, including teaching them to read. At night, she sleeps between her charges on a small mattress placed on the floor between their beds. She has not been given a single day off in 15 months. Like many domestic workers, Anna’s pay is low. She was originally promised $1,500 a month but receives only $620. On average, then, she is paid just $1.27 per hour.

Viturro said she hopes policymakers will take notice of the survey's findings and first-person accounts, especially as the alliance and its state partners gear up for a major legislative pushes in California, Massachusetts and Illinois. She said the survey process not only filled a critical data gap, but helped state alliance partners connect with new domestic workers, raise awareness about workers' rights and build their ranks.

"Learning about their needs and conditions will ensure that any legislative changes that we win are really at the heart of what domestic workers have defined that they need," Viturro said.

By workers, for workers

Domestic workers themselves were intimately involved in the Home Economics effort, designing the survey tool as well as finding and surveying participants. Nearly 200 domestic workers and organizers from 34 community organizations took part in gathering the data. Engaging domestic workers as surveyors was especially important in reaching out and gaining the confidence of workers who are often isolated and can have little contact with fellow workers in the industry, said Linda Burnham, co-author of the report and research director at NDWA.

"The input of domestic workers was extraordinarily important," she told me, adding that participating organizations were required to find and survey domestic workers outside of their membership ranks.

In Houston, Texas, a handful of members from the Fey y Justicia Worker Center (the Faith and Justice Worker Center, formerly known as the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center and an organizational member of NDWA) were trained to seek out and survey domestic workers in the east Texas metropolis. About 150 Houston workers were eventually surveyed, reported Laura Perez-Boston, the center's executive director. Perez-Boston said the report's overall findings are a good reflection of what's happening in Houston; though she said she thinks the findings of substandard work conditions and hazards may just be the tip of the iceberg.

For example, although the survey's health findings aren't news to Perez-Boston, she said she was surprised at just how many workers reported respiratory problems. She added that most workers don't even have time to make it to a doctor and are forced to simply ignore the serious problem or come to think of it as a normal part of the job.

"Not only was it a good tool to produce a powerful report with hard data that show the accumulation of stories we've been hearing for years, but it was also a very empowering process for the workers themselves," she told me. "It helped bring workers together to talk about the most common issues they're facing and their priorities for creating change."

Perez-Boston said the survey process inspired Fey y Justicia members to keep the story collecting moving forward. So, work is now underway to develop a writing workshop to help workers write about their experiences and eventually publish a book.

"Women's work has been undervalued probably since the beginning of time, and racism is still alive and well," she said. "And because (domestic work) is done primarily by women of color there isn't a lot of consideration for their full range of human needs. Sometimes, (domestic work) isn't even considered a real job."

Burnham at NDWA also said the survey confirmed the stories she and her colleagues hear all the time, especially stories of "how low wages impact family hardship and how difficult it is for undocumented workers and live-in workers to sustain families on their wages." Similarly, the findings confirmed domestic workers' health burdens and the relationship between high rates of injury, no access to health insurance and little access to paid sick leave — "a combination that is really tough for a workforce that's low-wage to begin with," Burnham said.

"No one thinks of their homes as unsafe work environments," she said.

The Home Economics report offers a number of recommendations for improving conditions for domestic workers, including enacting and enforcing policies that remedy domestic workers' exclusion from the labor rights most of us take for granted. Right now, domestic workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right of workers to unionize and bargain collectively. They're also left out of federal overtime pay protections as well as OSHA safety and health regulations. Burnham said employer education is critical as well, telling me that many employers want to do the right thing, but don't know what it means to be a fair employer.

Burnham said the alliance and its partners are busy working "state by state where we think we have a chance of winning" legal protections for domestic workers. Many such efforts look similar to New York's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was passed into law in 2010 and was a national first. (Domestic workers in California thought they had a similar victory earlier this year, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the measure.)

"We're hoping that what we're doing motivates other low-wage workers to organize too," Burnham said. "Each sector of the labor force has issues and circumstances unique to what they do, but we absolutely feel like the work we're doing in fighting for domestic workers is part of a larger attempt to really figure out how in this economic environment, low-wage workers can get a better deal."

For a copy of the domestic workers report, visit To learn more about being a fair domestic worker employer, visit Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for a decade.

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So what can I, as a potential employeer, do to make sure that people who do domestic work are treated appropriately? I mean, besides not being a jerk with delusians of feudal powers? Are house cleaners who work with an agency better compensated, and have more protections? Are there state-by-state guidelines on minimum hourly wages for domestic work? I would never ask someone to do something I felt was unsafe for myself, but I don't know if the risks associated with lugging the vacuum cleaner up the stairs are greater than I imagine, or increase sharply with repitition.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 13 Dec 2012 #permalink

Yeah, "don't be a jerk" is a good place to start. Specifically, here's what the report recommends:

"Employers can be a significant part of the solution if they educate themselves about workers’ rights and hold themselves accountable to fair labor standards. Employers should be prepared to provide domestic workers with a contractual agreement, fair wages including overtime pay and regular pay raises, access to affordable medical care, secure retirement income, paid leave, and a safe and healthy work environment. Practicing respectful communications and keeping accurate records of hours worked can go a long way toward improving the quality of the employment relationship."

I expect the "respectful communication" suggestion can help when it comes to modifying tasks to be less of a strain. If an employee feels that the employer will take concerns seriously, s/he can offer suggestions about improvements to equipment or practices that would make the job safer.