America's domestic workers, mostly female immigrants, 'undervalued and underpaid'

Emily Judem

A new study of the United States’ domestic worker industry shows a disproportionate number of laborers are women —predominantly immigrants — many of whom have trouble "making ends meet." The report, published Nov. 26, documents the economic instability and lack of legal protections for domestic workers.

Here is a closer look:


The country's number of “in-home workers”—also often referred to as domestic workers—is growing, and employees of the industry are much more likely to live in poverty compared to those in other occupations, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

The report, published last week, said most in-home workers are “unable to make ends meet” due to low wages and a lack of benefits.

There were nearly 2 million domestic workers in 2012—nannies, house cleaners, in-home caregivers, etc.—according to the EPI, a disproportionate number of them are immigrants. The report noted, however, that “due to the nature of these jobs,” it is likely that employment was undercounted.

“One out of every nine foreign-born female workers with a high school degree or less works in an in-home occupation,” the report said.

Because they do not typically have employment contracts, the study found workers are also susceptible to exploitation by employers. Only 12 percent receive health insurance, compared to 51 percent in other occupations.

“In-home workers, who are mostly female and largely women of color and immigrants, are a critical and growing part of the economy, yet they are grievously underpaid and lack the benefits that similar workers receive in other sectors,” EPI economist and author Heidi Shierholz said in a statement.

“Our country is wealthy enough so that workers who play such vital caretaking roles should be able to earn a decent wage. We need policies to protect these workers and help ensure they’re paid what they deserve.”

Here are some of the facts:

• 93.1 percent of domestic workers are women, compared to the 6.9 percent of the workforce that are men.
• 23.4 percent of in-home workers lived below the poverty line in 2012, compared to 6.5 percent of similar workers in other occupations.
• 51.4 percent of domestic workers’ income was below twice the federal poverty line.
• The median weekly pay for in-home workers who have or want full-time work is $382, compared with $769 for workers in other occupations.

The study examined worker pay, benefits, number or hours worked, whether or not workers’ families were able to “make ends meet,” and what legislation is in place to protect them.

The report noted that domestic workers are excluded from protections granted under state and federal laws, and which workers in other industries receive.

“Live-in” workers, for instance, are not entitled to overtime pay or protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and many workers are also not protected by National Labor Relations Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Emily Twarog, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor and Employment Relations, told Progress Illinois that “passing state and federal legislation to improve working conditions for in-home employees would also provide more ‘perceived value’ to the jobs.”

"I think it's passing legislation that will improve the standard of work, but also at the same time adding value and respect and dignity in the work that's done, because it is so gendered,” she said. “It's skewed female regardless of actually who is doing the work. When you’re providing a service or care, it's typically seen as women's labor, and women's labor has historically been undervalued and underpaid.”

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