Care workers and domestic workers visit Washington, D.C. in 2020. (Image credit: Othello Banaci for the National Domestic Workers Alliance)
With roughly 4 million children born and another 4 million people turning 65 each year in the United States, the demand for in-home care continues to rise sharply, and there aren't enough care workers to help.
To sound the alarm on this growing "care crisis" and spotlight the contributions of U.S. care workers, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its partners in the labor movement and among worker advocacy groups are hosting the Care Workers Can’t Wait Summit in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
“We really want to take the time to gather in D.C. to celebrate and recognize care and care workers,” said Jenn Stowe, executive director of the Alliance. “We know they provide crucial services to our families. They hold up our families and our loved ones.”
The gathering will serve to “galvanize the excitement” around the Joe Biden administration’s move to observe Care Workers Recognition Month this April. It's also the start of a renewed effort to educate Americans about the role of care workers, improve the quality of jobs, and recognize the care workers who are fighting for an equitable economy that benefits all workers across care industries, Stowe said.
Nearly 9 in 10 Americans provide unpaid care for a child or a family member. For many, that means facing the extremely difficult choice of continuing to work or providing care for loved ones. In 2018, the International Labor Organization reported that the 16 billion hours spent on unpaid caring every day would represent nearly a tenth of the world’s entire economic output if it was paid at a fair rate.
Even paid care work usually doesn't pay enough to live on. “Often care workers are making poverty wages," Stowe said. Domestic care workers, the majority of whom are low-income women of color and immigrants, are often employed directly by families rather than companies, leaving them in employment grey areas with little oversight. "They don’t benefit from the protections that other workers have, even though they wake up every day and demonstrate the commitment to the families they care for, and oftentimes they are really working in difficult work conditions," Stowe said. "They are expected to do unpaid work. They engage in a lot of physical labor and long hours. Oftentimes they make so little that they’re working multiple jobs to cover their own costs at home.”
One of the biggest problems care workers face is that their work is too often undervalued, despite it being “fundamental to being human,” Stowe said. “Care is often thought of as something very individualistic," she explained. "Pivoting to understand that care is something that the government should intervene in and that we should build a system around an entire care economy is something that people can do to really change the perceptions around care work and to also recognize care workers."
A positive sign for care workers is that more are seeking union representation. “We know that 90 percent of the folks who are in the care workforce are women, and the majority of those women are Black women, other women of color and immigrants,” Stowe explained. “Labor union representation would mean that families could rely on a stronger workforce to care for their loved ones because those jobs would really be good jobs. Unions are also instrumental in making sure that workers can have their voices amplified so they can do their work, but also do it with the dignity that they deserve.”
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents almost 1.9 million workers across the U.S. and Canada, agreed. “Every person and every family needs care workers," she said. "It’s long past time we make sure the Black, Latina, and immigrant women that power our nation’s care infrastructure have a voice on the job together in a union and are paid living wages with the benefits and support they need to thrive."
Organizers with the SEIU will march alongside U.S. care workers in Washington this week to push for a new system that truly values care work and treats care workers accordingly. "Now, at the Care Can’t Wait Summit, working people are coming together to demand nothing short of an economic transformation that centers care work and care workers and charts a course toward a brighter future," Henry said.
The general public also has an opportunity to join the fight and play a major role in improving conditions and wages for care workers. “We want folks who have received care to join us. We want folks who are caring for folks to join us," Stowe said — pointing to the "get involved" section of the organization's website for ways to take action.
“We also know that even just recognizing the value of care and care work and recognizing the folks who provide care in your life can really shift the perception and the devaluation of the work," she concluded. "That’s something that everyone can do, really recognizing how important those workers are to our lives.”
Update: Today, the Biden Administration will announce the most comprehensive set of executive actions ever taken to improve affordable care for families while supporting care workers and caregivers. The order includes "more than 50 directives to nearly every cabinet-level agency to expand access to affordable, high-quality care, and provide support for care workers and family caregivers," according to the administration.
Biden will sign the order at an event with family caregivers, people with disabilities, older adults and care workers, including members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Stowe and Ai-jen Poo, president of the Alliance, called the move a "tremendous milestone for families and workers across the country."
Gary E. Frank is a writer with more than 30 years of experience encompassing journalism, marketing, media relations, speech writing, university communications and corporate communications.