A few Decembers ago, a busy attorney named Julie Kay was running around buying gifts and planning holiday travel with family, coordinating schedules for the women she employed to help out with her ailing mother and infant daughter. While putting together her holiday cards, it hit her that she’d forgotten something.
“All of a sudden I realized I hadn’t done any of that for the elder caregivers,” Kay says — meaning let them go see their own families. “I realized that these people had the same relationships as I did with my mother, and I thought ‘Oh, I should give them paid time off.'”
Even the most well-intentioned consumers of domestic help — and as someone who’s worked for leading women’s rights organizations, Kay qualifies — often aren’t sure what a fair deal looks like. People might consult their friends or online message boards to figure out the market rate, and rarely put workers’ rights and responsibilities down in writing.
“I wouldn’t take a job without knowing what the benefits were,” Kay says. “And yet we often expect with caregivers to support this informality.”
Kay works with a group called Hand in Hand, which advises employers on how to treat in-home helpers better. And now, along with a couple of the biggest organizations working with those caregivers — the National Domestic Worker Alliance and Care.com, an online platform for connecting nannies, in-home nurses, and housecleaners with employers — they're trying to solve that problem on a larger scale.
On stage at the Clinton Global Initiative today, they’ll announce what they’re calling the “Fair Care pledge,” a voluntary commitment that employers can make to paying living wages calculated for their area — often much higher than the minimum wage — as well as giving a recommended two weeks paid time off, and laying out a set of expectations on which both parties agree.
If that sounds vague and incremental, it is. There’s nothing required about the pledge, and only occasional check-ins to ask whether employers are actually abiding by the commitments they’ve made, making it more of a nudge than a demand.
“We’re really focused on building awareness for the industry, and start to professionalize caregiving,” says Care.com Chief Executive Sheila Marcelo. “We can’t actually dictate and say 'this is how you’re going to behave.'"
Still, the unusual partnership between a non-profit advocacy group and an employment Website with a user base of millions could be an important step forward in a sector that is so fragmented, and so invisible, that even finding out what’s going on is a huge challenge.
The number of caregivers is rising quickly — the Census Bureau counted 726,000 in 2010, up 10 percent from 2004, although many more could have gone uncounted — as the population ages and requires more assistance. As far as anyone can tell, compensation in the industry remains poor. A 2012 survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that 23 percent of caregivers are paid less than minimum wage, 65 percent have no health insurance, and most have little control over their working conditions.
“It’s like the wild west. It’s very very arbitrary,” says NDWA director Ai-jen Poo, who won a MacArthur Genius Award last year for her work on the issue. “So we’ve recognized that a lot of people want to do the right thing, and they don’t know what that is.” Caregivers themselves can now be a little pickier about the families they go work for, if they know who has committed to treating them decently.
Eventually, Poo says she’d like to move towards pushing more employers to sign legally binding contracts with their caregivers, like workers in many jobs tend to expect. But at the moment, she says, many nannies and housecleaners are undocumented immigrants — and until immigration rules are reformed, mandating contracts could just push the undocumented underground.
At the same time, with new federal rights for home health care workers tied up in the courts, both Care.com and Poo’s group are pushing for bills in state legislatures that would require benefits like time off and fair pay. And since so many home health aides are paid for through Medicare, public budgets matter as well. But sometimes, legal protections aren’t as effective as simply telling employers how to behave responsibly.
“At the end of the day, we barely enforce wage and hour laws at big retailers,” says Kay. “The idea of being able to do it in the home, for me, wouldn’t be a starting point. It’s very hard for someone to have access to the courts and sue in the courts for something like that.”
The “Fair care” pledge is a recognition of the fact that in trying to help populations beyond the reach of the justice system, laws only go so far.