Underpaid, exploited, and living in our homes

June 10, 2013

(Evil Eryn/Flickr)
Because domestic workers often don’t have contracts, their employers ask them to do tasks outside of the job description.

WBEZ’s Front and Center series, Exceptions to the Rule explores jobs that are excluded from federal labor laws.  Over the last two weeks, we’ve reported on disabled workers who legally earn less than a dollar an hour and the over 3 million Americans earning tipped wages. Today, we explore home care workers. 

James and I meet in a car, outside a cafe. We’re using a fake name for James because he worries the elderly couple he works for as a live-in caretaker will find out he is talking to the media.

James is shaking and carrying a small notebook. He says because he doesn’t have co-workers, or see his wife or three kids for days, the only way to stay sane is to write down his struggles. He opens the notebook and starts reading.

His employers don’t want to pay for him to use their water, so he brings drinking water and showers at home on his time off.

He sleeps in his employer’s room and wakes in the middle of the night to help him go to the bathroom or take medicine. But when the couple naps during the day, he’s expected to do chores. He never gets enough sleep.

He works six days a week, 24 hours a day.

“One of our agreements is that I have to go home at least twice a week to get food and take a bath. But she keeps telling me now, ‘no one would put up with this agreement. because you are paid 24 hours.’ That’s not even the minimum wage.”

Home care workers aren’t included in the federal minimum wage. But they are covered by Illinois Law.

Still the state’s laws aren’t entirely clear and may allow for loopholes. According the Department of Labor, private households may not have to pay their home care workers minimum wage, because of a general exemption for employers with less than four employees.

James earns $720 a week, which if calculated over a 24 hour work, amounts to $5 an hour. 

He’s tried to leave his job. People have even interviewed for his position, but they always sniff out that it’s a bad situation and refuse to take the job. So he stays, even though he says his employers mistreat him.

“I don’t want to feel guilty about leaving them and (I don’t want) to abandon them,” James said.

The job is taking its toll, he loses his temper all the time now. He feels he’s acting in ways that go against his Filipino culture, which says he should always respect his elders. At 12, he changed his grandmother's bed when she wet it. Now he hates himself for being so angry at his employers, the people he’s paid to care for. But he’s just so exhausted.

“We’re like robots or an equipment that every time you want to use, you can just use. I get tired too.”

Eric Rodriguez organizes with Latino Union. “They don’t have any rest. They are like zombies out there. “

Rodriguez says the history of this second class of workers started with the racism of lawmakers who created the Fair Labor Act in the 1930s

“I mean let's think about it, right? It was a negotiation between northern and southern states. And so the folks who were doing the domestic work back then were African- American women. And unfortunately what happened is domestic workers were intentionally excluded.”

People who do domestic work are still on the margins of society. Ninety-five percent of them are women, many immigrants. Latino Union is part of a coalition trying to pass a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in Illinois. The bill would give domestic workers basic protections like guaranteed breaks to sleep or eat. The bill didn't come up for a vote this session, but advocates are still pushing for it.

Myrla Baldonado is a domestic worker who is heading up the campaign. She says her fellow workers are hard to organize because they don’t work in one place, like a factory or a farm, and the relationships with their employers is complicated.

“I make sure I love [my employers]” said Baldonado. “The difference with a factory job is there is intimacy. Everything is blurred. It’s like they are demanding something from you not as a worker, but somebody else. Like maybe a daughter. It’s very psychologically and physically challenging.”

Baldonado says that she wanted to be a part of the families she served. But they’d insult her and imply she was stupid or lazy. Still, she doesn’t blame them.

“When sick people are like that it’s because they don’t feel well. They do things they don't want to do,” she said.

Even as she provides love and care for her employers, she’s sad she can’t do that for her own family.  Baldonado has four adopted children in her homeland of the Philippines. When she was a live-in caretaker, she’d send more than half of her $1,750 monthly check to them. She ate mostly bananas and eggs to save extra cash.  But it wasn’t enough. The kids inherited hepatitis from their birth mother and spend a lot of the money on healthcare. They are repeatedly evicted.

“I know that I am cutting corners to the extent of putting their health in jeopardy,” said Baldonado. “It’s very difficult that I can care for other people, but I couldn’t care for them.”

Despite all her frustrations, Baldonado believes in the job that she does. As much as her activism is about labor laws, it’s also about showing society the importance of caregiving work.

“The value of care is not there, because it’s done by women. And it’s done in private spaces,” said Baldonado.

She says without caregivers, people with elderly parents or young children couldn’t have jobs. A phrase that she and organizers like to use is that domestic work is the work that makes all work possible. And doesn’t that, Baldonado asks, at least earn them the same rights that everyone else has?

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h

Correction/Clarification: Additional information about the Illinois law versus federal law was added to this story. The story was also changed to clarify that the workers profiled here were privately-hired home care workers. The story previously didn’t offer a clear distinction between domestic workers and home care workers.