Decades before the Covid pandemic, Ai-jen Poo realized that domestic workers who care for children and the elderly had few rights and lived in economic instability. She founded what has become the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a nonprofit that organizers nannies, house cleaners and home health workers, and has won Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in nine states. She also helped launch Caring Across Generations, which advocates for better care for the elderly and those with disabilities. She’s the author of The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, a certified MacArthur Genius and was Meryl Streep’s guest to the Golden Globe Awards in 2018. We discussed why she started fighting for better rights for caregivers and better care for American families, the greater awareness the pandemic has brought to the need for investment in caregiving and her vision for how to accomplish change.
Why did you originally get involved in organizing domestic workers, including nannies, in New York City?
Living in New York City, it’s impossible not to see that the city is really powered by a workforce of women, mostly women of color, who provide essential services for families and especially care that families need. There were just upwards of 200,000 mostly immigrant women of color who were working, pushing babies in strollers to the parks and picking them up from play dates and story hours. When we think about the workforce that makes everything else possible, it’s impossible in New York City not to see this incredible workforce of women of color who do that work. It’s also really stark how undervalued their work is and how largely unseen it’s been in our culture and in our economy.
“What the Covid pandemic has revealed is that our lack of a caregiving infrastructure and adequate support for working families to meet their caregiving needs is actually a huge liability and a huge risk in our public health and in our economy.” — Ai-jen Poo, founder, the National Domestic Workers Alliance
And these are women who also have families of their own. Really early on when I was still in school, I was volunteering at a domestic violence shelter for Asian immigrant women. I worked the hotline at nights and a lot of the calls that would come into the hotline were about the economic stressors that survivors of violence face and the fact that many of them work in these low-wage service jobs like nannying and caregiving. While they’re incredibly dedicated to that work, they just can’t pay the bills or make ends meet on the income that they earn. And without access to a safety net, they just really didn’t have the ability to provide the care that their own families needed. It seemed like a really important place to dive in if we wanted to really create economic opportunity in our community.
You’ve been working on this project for a long time now. How has the issue of rights for domestic workers and caregivers evolved over the years that you’ve been working on it?
I first started organizing domestic workers in 1998. At the time, even through the early 2000s, when you would say the words “domestic worker,” legislators would ask, “What are you talking about? Is this about domestic violence, what is this about really?” We’ve literally had to bring nannies to the state legislature and to the city council to share their experiences and tell their stories. Then, there slowly became a recognition of just how large and important this work is and just how vulnerable the work is.
In the 1930s, when Congress was debating the New Deal labor laws that would become our core foundational labor law framework, Southern members of Congress would not support those laws if they included equal protections for farm workers and domestic workers, who were mostly Black at the time. That racial exclusion has really shaped how this workforce has been treated under the law and in our culture. The organizing that we’ve done has really tried to bring attention to that and to address it for the 21st century. The question of how race and gender has shaped what kind of work we value and protect in our economy—that conversation has really evolved thanks to movements for social change over the years.
Now that we have a reality where most working age adults work outside of the home and they rely upon caregivers and professional care workers to support their families, there is an increasing understanding of just how important this work is. But our policies haven’t really caught up. I would say that for the most part in our country’s history, we’ve always treated caring for our families as an individual personal responsibility. If you’re a parent and you can’t afford child care, it’s because of some failure on your part, or if you’re a daughter of a parent with Alzheimer’s and you can’t afford the home care that they need, it’s because you didn’t save or you did something wrong.
What the Covid pandemic has revealed is that our lack of a caregiving infrastructure and adequate support for working families to meet their caregiving needs is actually a huge liability and a huge risk in our public health and in our economy. Now there’s starting to be more of an awareness that care is a public policy priority and need and that care infrastructure is fundamental infrastructure for our economic wellbeing in the 21st century.
Do you think Americans have become more inclined to support better rights for domestic workers and caregivers, public responses to caregiving needs, in the pandemic?
I would say yes. There’s been a huge consciousness and awareness shift in terms of what work is essential. This pandemic has created this situation where all of these workers who are working in our service economy—who by the way are mostly women and people of color who worked in jobs that were almost invisible to us, everyone from the farmworker to the grocery worker and the delivery worker to the child care worker and the home care worker—suddenly people started to understand that this work is essential to our health and our safety and our wellbeing. I think people do understand that childcare workers, early educators and home care workers are essential.
The other piece of it is the caregiving challenges. We’ve been reading these horrific numbers about women who are being forced out of the workforce because of a lack of choices around caregiving, whether it’s child care or elder care. And it’s disproportionately affected women of color in particular. There has been a real shift in consciousness, both in terms of the workforce and how essential the work is and in terms of just what working families need in the way of a caregiving infrastructure and policy support.
[But] I don’t think there’s been enough of a shift at all in actual policy action. Which is now the focus of our work.
What has the pandemic meant for your organizing—has it impacted it or changed it? The pandemic will someday ebb and end, how do you carry that consciousness forward and what does it look like on the other side of the crisis?
We never stopped organizing, especially in the peak of the pandemic because we have so many care workers and nannies and house cleaners who worked through the pandemic providing essential services to families who needed them. They did so without access to health care, sometimes without access to proper PPE [personal protective equipment], and certainly without access to child care for their own kids who were home from school.
We’ve been organizing throughout, and we’ve had more engagement than ever before from caregivers and domestic workers around the country, signing up to call their members of Congress, to participate in legislative meetings and town halls and online rallies.
There is a real sense [that] now is our time. So we’re working together with unions who represent care workers, with family caregivers and family caregiver advocates, we’re working with early childhood advocates, paid leave advocates, to push together to build the care economy that we’ve always needed. We think that this is a once in several generations opportunity to really reset how our economy functions to better support families. So everything is super charged at this moment in terms of our organizing.
During the pandemic and even before that, have you seen parents getting more involved? I’m often asked why there isn’t a parents’ movement for child care, and there’s lots of reasons for that. But are parents getting turned onto this, are they getting involved and mobilized?
Yes absolutely. The voters who turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers in 2020 and even in Georgia in the Senate runoffs are parents, many of them. The care workers themselves are parents. I think everywhere we turn people are activated because the stakes have never been more clear. Despite all the challenges with the pandemic and otherwise, I do see renewed passion about the fact that it is up to us. It’s the voters who will decide and communities in motion who can really make change happen.
We have good champions in the legislature, and I think the stars are beginning to align in that way.
Joe Biden made his caregiving platform a central part of his presidential campaign. With that and with champions in the legislature, do you think now is the time? Are you optimistic that policy will change?
I’m going to quote Stacey Abrams here and say I’m neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but I am determined. I say that because these are issues that families have been raising for decades now. We have really seen a big breakthrough moment in the public awareness around the essential nature of the care economy and we have a really good mandate on the part of voters to move real change forward. It is going to be up to us collectively to make it happen. It’s going to take a very broad, wide and deep movement of families and workers together to realize the possibility or the potential of this moment.
The Biden caregiving agenda was a significant marker for three reasons. One being that it was the first time a presidential candidate made caregiving a core part of their economic agenda. Not the women’s agenda, not the family agenda—the economic agenda.
The second piece was that it really understood that family care is about meeting the needs of families that are intergenerational units. There is a need for child care and early educators, there’s a need for paid leave so that families can take care of the people that they love and themselves at different times, and that there’s a need for long-term care, elder care, and support for people with disabilities, especially in the home and community. While those issues have been siloed in the past, people are starting to understand how they’re interconnected and interdependent and that families experience the need for these policy solutions in ways that are fundamentally connected. That was another big breakthrough.
The third big breakthrough was really recognizing the importance of the caregiving workforce. We need to be investing in our childcare providers, in our early educators. We need to be making sure that home care jobs, that all of the jobs in the care economy, are living wage jobs with benefits and a path to a union and, I would add, a path to citizenship for the immigrant caregiving workforce.
The fact that the Biden care agenda planted those three stakes in the ground is a really significant indicator of how far we’ve come on these issues and what’s possible. Which I think is about building the kind of care infrastructure that really does meet families where they are at this time in our history.
For someone who is interested in organizing their neighborhood and organizing their community to advocate for more resources for children, for better working conditions for caregivers, what advice would you give? Where should people start? What are your tricks of the trade?
Because of the timely nature with which all of these policies are being discussed in the context of federal relief, I would just say to pick up the phone and call your members of Congress and urge that supporting caregivers and caregiving is a core component of any Covid relief and recovery effort. And if you can set up a meeting with your member of Congress and gather your neighbors, friends and family to do the same, that actually could make all the difference right now.
Our traditional approaches to economic recovery have really evolved. Short-term investments in public infrastructure like roads, bridges, and tunnels and broadband—those are absolutely essential. And child care, home care, these kinds of policies and programs are also essential infrastructure at this time. In order to make sure that we build an economy that actually works better and keeps us safer and is more resilient coming out of this pandemic, we really have to see our caregiving programs in that way and our care workforce as essential infrastructure. It’s different because it’s human infrastructure. But it is just as essential and fundamental to a healthy economy. Any parent out there reading this will get that.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.