How supporting our Care Workforce can increase economic mobility and opportunity for women

Caira Woods

“In the months of April and May of 2020, as daycare centers and schools closed and nursing homes went on lockdown, four million women were pushed out of the workforce due to caregiving challenges, disproportionately women of color. Many of those women have not yet returned to the workforce, many have depleted their savings, will have to start over, and will suffer significant losses to their economic security or ability to build wealth.

Ai-jen Poo, co-founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance  


For those with limited resources, achieving mobility is no small feat. It's not just about economic circumstances – it's also about them being able to decide their destiny, live with dignity, and be valued members of their communities.  


The poignant quote above from Ai-jen Poo, co-founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), comes at a time when so many workers and women, in particular, continue to grapple with the disproportionate economic impacts of the pandemic. 


Through our Economic Mobility and Opportunity strategy, we’re working with our partners to make achieving mobility less difficult, which has required taking into account the disparate impacts of the pandemic as well as barriers to progress that were long-standing even before COVID-19.  


For many women seeking to get back into the workforce, having caregiving support for their loved ones while they work is essential and that support is often provided by domestic workers. NDWA is helping so many recognize the value and increase the visibility of these 2.5 million U.S. workers, 91.5% of whom are women and often women of color. 


Illuminating the barriers that workers earning low wages face when trying to climb the economic ladder is an important part of countering prevailing beliefs about their circumstances and can lead to better aligned and more effective person-centered solutions. Organizations like NDWA are addressing these challenges head-on and are leading the way in telling shared stories of triumph.


In honor of National Women’s History Month, I had the pleasure of engaging in an enlightening conversation with Ai-jen about care workers and the contributing role they play in helping women and families attain economic mobility and opportunity.  I encourage you to read her powerful perspective and learn how effective programs can advance a stronger care infrastructure for us all.  


Caira: In honor of National Women’s History Month, can you talk about the women who have shaped the movement for care – a movement you’ve been a critical voice in driving?

Ai-jen: Rosalynn Carter famously said: "There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers." 


The care movement is unique in that it touches every person’s life – we have all needed care and will all need care – in a very personal and intimate way. In fact, we recently received a donation in honor of the domestic worker who cared for our donor for thirteen years of her life when she was young, preparing her food, writing letters when she was away at camp, and making sure she felt cared for. This is a movement that reaches all of us in many different ways.


For the last 20 years, I have watched women like Guillermina Castellanos grow our movement. She began work as a domestic worker as a young girl in Mexico and took up caregiving and cleaning work when she arrived in San Francisco. For the past two decades, she has created safe spaces for domestic workers like her to gather, support one another and advocate for better jobs and conditions. As a mother and caregiver, she believes that care is at the heart of our economic and social well-being and is passionate about our society recognizing its value. She and millions of care workers, mothers, and family caregivers like her have brought our movement to life.


Caira: I’m not sure everyone understands the relationship between care and economic mobility and opportunity, especially for women. Can you talk a bit about how the two are related?


Ai-jen: That’s right — the relationship between care and economic mobility and opportunity is not widely understood, because care is both individualized and invisibilized in our society. Care most often happens at home, behind closed doors. And the expectation is that it will be provided or managed by individual households, most often the women in the household. 


We take for granted that women will handle it, on top of work, on our own. And if we can’t for some reason, it's considered a personal failure. We did something wrong, didn’t get the right job, save enough or prepare enough. 


But the truth is, we can be doing everything right, and still struggle with impossible choices. Because like families in so many other countries around the world, we need programs, policies, and a strong care workforce – public infrastructure – to support our caregiving needs. We live in a society today where most children grow up in households where all the adults in the household work outside of the home, often out of necessity, to make ends meet.  


Without access to affordable, quality childcare, working parents, especially moms, struggle to stay in the workforce or advance in their careers. We are also an aging nation, with growing numbers of working

family caregivers who care for aging loved ones and loved ones with disabilities, on top of working full-time. Without access to care, family caregivers are often making impossible choices between family and work, at great cost to their health, economic security, and well-being.  


The pandemic, unfortunately, proved this point. In the months of April and May of 2020, as daycare centers and schools closed and nursing homes went on lockdown, four million women were pushed out of the workforce due to caregiving challenges, disproportionately women of color. Many of those women have not yet returned to the workforce, many have depleted their savings, will have to start over, and will suffer significant losses to their economic security or ability to build wealth. A strong care infrastructure is essential for those who do want to be in the workforce, ensuring they have the support they need to care for their loved ones while they work.  


Caira: What successes have you seen in providing care workers with greater economic mobility?

Ai-jen: When domestic workers come together and fight for the respect and dignity they deserve, change happens. Since the alliance was formed 15 years ago, domestic workers have fought for - and won! - Domestic Worker BiIls of Rights in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Virginia, and in the cities of Philadelphia and Seattle.  

Even in the pandemic, we’ve had success, like the legislation we pushed for in San Francisco in December to provide the 10,000 domestic workers in the city with paid sick leave, or in Chicago requiring every house cleaner, nanny and caregiver receive a written contract – in her preferred language, regardless of immigration status – to help protect workers from wage theft.  


A recently won state budget initiative in North Carolina will raise the rates for Home and Community Based Services and Intermediate Care Facilities so that workers in these programs receive at least $15/hour. At the federal level, the National Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, reintroduced in 2021 by U.S. Senators Kristen Gillibrand, Ben Ray Luján, and U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal, will help ensure a set of standards and protections for domestic workers across the nation. We want every care and cleaning job to be a job that earns a living wage with benefits, and real economic mobility, so that women and families have the support they need. With each initiative, we’re getting closer.  


Caira: How has the pandemic intensified the challenges that care workers face?

Ai-jen: Before the pandemic, care workers earned poverty wages, without access to health care, paid sick days, or benefits, even as our need for care increased with a growing “sandwich generation” – adult children responsible for the care of both their parents and their young children. Within that reality, the pandemic created a crisis within a crisis.  


Domestic workers didn’t have the option of working from home, and workers had to face the choice of going to work and putting their family at risk of COVID transmission or being able to put food on the table – if they still had a job. For workers who found themselves suddenly without a job, there was no paid time off to cash out, no severance, and often no access to the safety net. And the workers who remained employed through the shutdowns were on their own to find personal protective equipment and set health and safety protocols for work.  


We can’t unsee what the pandemic showed us: we need a care infrastructure that is resilient, where care workers can care for their own families as they care for others, and where the safety net is extended to all workers, especially frontline and care workers. 


Caira: For Women’s History Month, we’ve enjoyed learning more about inspiring women. Who has inspired you?

Ai-jen: My life feels like one long story of bearing witness to the strength and capacity of women. As a young girl, I watched how hard my mother worked to become a doctor in a new country, in her second language, while raising two girls. I spent the summers of my childhood following my grandmother around from the clinic where she worked as a nurse to her neighborhood where she cared for so many in the community.  


When I was older, I volunteered for a domestic violence hotline, answering calls from women in crisis, including domestic workers experiencing abuse both at home and in their workplace. They were fighting to care for their children, even as they cared for others professionally--frequently navigating the uncertainty of undocumented status, living with the threat of being separated from their families so that they could care for them. Their strength reaffirmed for me that women are capable of anything. 


This is why I do the work I do today. I believe women like Susie Rivera hold the keys to a more caring and equitable future. She has been a home care worker for 40 years, working in hospice care, assisted living, and home care. In 2021, Susie spoke to President Biden from her home in Texas about the need for a living wage and benefits for care workers like herself who have been overlooked and undervalued for so long. When I see women like Susie fighting for the dignity and respect they deserve, I have to believe that progress is not only possible, it’s inevitable.


Ai-jen Poo is co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a non-profit organization working to bring quality work, dignity, and fairness to the growing numbers of workers who care and clean in our homes, the majority of whom are immigrants and women of color. In 12 short years, with the help of more than 70 local affiliate organizations and chapters and over 200,000 members, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has passed Domestic Worker Bills of Rights in 10 states and 2 cities and brought over two million home care workers under minimum wage protections.


Caira Woods, Ph.D., is deputy director of the foundation’s Economic Mobility and Opportunity strategy, a national effort to increase the number and range of U.S. actors committed to dramatically improving mobility from poverty. The program is committed to partnership, innovation, research, and investments that help more Americans climb the economic ladder and lead fulfilling dignified lives.