Ai-jen Poo won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work on behalf of domestic workers (Photo: MacArthur Foundation)
Ai-jen Poo won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work on behalf of domestic workers (MacArthur Foundation)

As a freshly-minted Columbia University graduate, Ai-jen Poo had no time to waste.  For years she had been volunteering in a shelter helping battered women who were seeking protection from abusive situations. Now she had time to expand her efforts, and she began a campaign to organize the city’s thousands of domestic workers, many of whom were immigrants with little understanding of the U.S. legal system and its labor protection laws. Many worked long hours at low pay, with no sick time, vacation days or health benefits; many were trapped because they had nowhere else to go.

Poo sought out these women in city parks, neighborhood playgrounds and church basements.  It took years, but eventually enough women had joined forces to create a union with real power. In 2000, after a seven-year effort, Poo co-founded Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In 2010, Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

While defending the rights of those who work as nannies, home health-care aides, and housekeepers brings tremendous personal reward, it’s not usually seen as a financially-rewarding occupation.

That’s no longer true for Ai-jen Poo. She has won a MacArthur Fellowship, which comes with a $625,000 over five years. Now, in addition to labor organizer and defender of the rights of domestic workers, the 40-year-old Poo can call herself a “genius,” which is how recipients of the MacArthur award are popularly known.

According to the MacArthur Foundation, Poo’s “compelling vision of the value of home-based care work is transforming the landscape of working conditions and labor standards for domestic or private-household workers.” She’s a labor organizer who is “catalyzing a vibrant, worker-led movement for improved working conditions and labor standards for domestic or private-household workers.”

With the award, the Pittsburgh native has the financial means to expand her work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations. She plans to offer fellowships to domestic workers — at a living wage, she insisted — so they can bring their voices to the table. Poo plans to continue her advocacy for greater protection of domestic workers’ rights and to create a home-based health-care program that she hopes will build a more caring community across all generations.

“The biggest thing we hope to change,” Poo explained to me, “Is to grant these domestic workers some basic respect and recognition of the value of their work.”

The work that nannies, home health-care aides, and housekeepers do represents the “wild west,” she explained, which is a place where “you never quite know what you’ll get.”

“Maybe you’ll get an employer who will give you time off when you’re sick, provide a couple of weeks of paid vacation, pay you overtime when you work well over 40 hours a week and pay for your health insurance. Or, maybe you’ll get an employer who forces you to work for up to 100 hours a week, docks your pay when you’re sick and gives you no days off during the year.”

“Even worse, a bad employer,” she added, “might be one who engages in human trafficking or commits sexual assault.”

Those cases are extreme, but even good employers, she added, may not know how to comply with the law. Do they need to pay more than minimum wage? How many days of paid sick leave are legally required? Do domestic workers get maternity leave?

“One of the problems we face is that people don’t see this type of work as ‘real work,’” she said. “This work used to be done by family members, so it wasn’t seen as needing the kind of protections and pay that other jobs would.”

“We need a whole new approach to how we treat domestic workers,” Poo argues.

Poo isn’t just interested in the rights of domestic workers. She’d also like to see a change in how care is provided across the generations.

To do this, we may want to consider creating a Medicare Part C, she suggested, which would provide benefits for those who support home- and community-based health care.

“Our society should support keeping people in their homes or providing for community-based care, rather than putting the elderly into nursing homes, which provide the most expensive form of care.”

“I’d like to see another 2 million quality jobs in home care, where domestic workers are earning a living wage and have some economic security,” Poo said.

Poo acknowledges that achieving these goals will require substantial changes in American society. But, that doesn’t bother her.

“We already know how to do this,” Poo insisted. “We just need to create a link, a health partnership, between the home health-care providers and the health-care system.”

“Just think of the benefits we could reap if we integrated the entire system?” Poo queried. “This is a win-win situation.”

“We need to think about the new reality that we face — some 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 years old each day. And, people are living longer than ever. But, we haven’t yet addressed the issue of who’s going to take care of these people.”

“We have an opportunity now to create a link across generations,” she insisted. “It’s true that ‘It takes a village’ to raise a child, but it’s also true that it takes a village to take care of multiple generations.”

Poo sees that our “American village” needs to take care of the child, the mother and the grandmother.

“I hope to use this grant not only to continue the work on behalf of domestic workers, but also to create a broad-based coalition and build a more caring community than we have now,” she said.