Organizing and Policy Lessons from the National Domestic Workers Alliance

Workers in the United States should all be paid a fair wage and shown basic respect on the job. Yet, domestic workers are often denied both. Domestic workers typically work long and often unpredictable hours, are in isolated working conditions, are paid low wages, and can be at the whim of the families that hire them when it comes to sick leave, days off, or professional treatment on the job.

Since 2007, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has been organizing domestic workers to fight to improve working conditions and build power among a labor force made up of 35 percent immigrants, both those who are documented and those without work authorization. The labor force is overwhelmingly female: 91 percent of domestic workers are women, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. And it is predominantly people of color: 21 percent of domestic workers are Black, 29 percent Latinx, six percent Asian, and 42 percent white.

Organizing domestic workers is challenging because jobs typically involve one person working alone in an individual home, so workers do not gather in any one location. Immigration status can be a concern: employers may threaten to call ICE or more subtly press workers they may think are undocumented. And, domestic work is a referral-based field, so workers are highly dependent on getting recommendations from employers.

Domestic workers also face a special obstacle in their struggle for worker power: Legal barriers to unionization initially aimed at preventing the organizing of Black workers. Key pieces of New Deal era legislation made a point of excluding domestic workers and farm workers—at the time jobs held predominantly by Black women and men, and still held mostly by people of color. The National Labor Relations Act excludes domestic workers and farm workers from federal organizing rights, and the Fair Labor Standards Act excludes these same groups from wage and hour standards, clear legacies of the Jim Crow era that persist today.

To learn more about recent successes in building power among domestic workers, and to get a glimpse of what future organizing may look like, Anthony Capote and David Dyssegaard Kallick of IRI spoke with Mariana Viturro, deputy director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Viturro has helped organize thousands of domestic workers across the country and has secured several inspiring policy victories. She outlined some of the challenges in organizing a workforce that mostly is in job sites independent from one another and talked about different approaches to ensuring workers have a say in their working conditions, including some up-to-the-minute strategies for protecting workers in the online gig economy. More than anything Viturro left the impression of an organization that was constantly testing different approaches, building on successes, and regrouping when a new idea does not work out.

Reclassifying Home Health Aides to Provide Basic Worker Protections

Most domestic work is performed by home care aides, who make up almost two thirds of the domestic workforce, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Other domestic workers like nannies (15 percent) and house cleaners (22 percent). Of the 1.4 million home care aides in the United States, 1.25 million find work through agencies.

One approach to building worker power Viturro told us about involves creating state policies that reclassify some categories of domestic workers into areas where they can be legally recognized as employees with the right to unionize. This has proven effective for home care aides, who until 2015 were considered by the Labor Department to be “elder companions” rather than workers. After an Obama-era ruling, people doing this job were reclassified from companions to domestic workers.

Another step was to win union representation in bargaining. Although their direct employer may be private agencies or families, 70 percent of wages for home care aides are paid for by state Medicare and Medicaid systems. Since their wages are set by the state, workers—together with unions such as SEIU and AFSCME—have argued that the state should be considered the employer for collective bargaining purposes. Home care aides have won this battle in eight states, usually by becoming part of the bargaining unit even when they are not recognized as employees.

State governments also have the capacity to set standards on how domestic workers are treated. In 2022, Oregon passed a bill classifying domestic workers as employees in the same way as factory or office workers are employees. The law, which took effect in August 2022, expands minimum wage rules as well as protections against racial discrimination and sexual harassment to all domestic workers including child caretakers, gardeners, home care aides, and house cleaners.

While reclassification has proven to be a successful strategy in some states, changes in federal policy have added new obstacles to overcome. Supreme Court rulings (like Janus v. AFSCME in 2018 and Harris v. Quinn in 2014) have posed significant challenges to the funding and strength of home health aides in the workplace, leaving domestic workers—and NDWA—to branch out with additional strategies for building worker power.

Domestic Worker Bills of Rights

Another approach Vitturo pointed to is the idea of a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. This includes establishing a basic floor for pay and working conditions through a bill of rights for workers. For immigrants who are undocumented, a bill of rights can be an effective way to improve wages and working conditions while sidestepping sensitive questions about work authorization. A bill of rights applies to everyone in the job.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance has worked tirelessly to urge passage of a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 10 states, the first of which passed in 2010. The benefits of a codified enumeration of worker rights are many. The Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, for example, sets limits on the number of hours of work employers can make domestic workers perform and establishes protection against workplace sexual harassment.

The glaring issue with bills of rights is that it is difficult for them to have sufficient frameworks for enforcement or oversight. While politically attractive, many of the rights guaranteed in these laws are virtually impossible to enforce in the real work environment. It is useful for a bill of rights to establish a standard, but without establishing authority or allocating funds to ensure workers are informed of their new rights, or that employers are abiding by new regulations, the policy victories won through “bill of rights” can simply result in name-only rights and protections.

Enforcement through Standards Boards

Worker bills of rights are excellent tools for policy recognition and stating governmental support for marginalized workers, but there are key differences between policy victories that call out inequality and those that actively redistribute power and resources to undo inequalities.

One promising strategy has been the use of standards boards for domestic workers. Standards boards are governmental bodies—usually comprised of both worker representatives and employers—who address workplace issues and make policy recommendations to legislative bodies.

In Seattle, for example, workers have built on successful, policy-centric strategies to build a lasting framework of worker-employer collaboration to keep pay and working conditions at respectable levels. In 2019, Seattle passed a Domestic Workers Ordinance establishing, among other things, a standards board whose sole purpose is to evaluate emerging workplace issues and make policy recommendations to solve them.

The 13-member Domestic Workers Standards Board in Seattle is made up of domestic workers and employers, and also includes non-affiliated advocates. The board can conduct public hearings and issue reports. The board also makes policy recommendations to city governments on how to address these issues. These have included implementing trainings for hiring agencies and workers on labor rights, sexual harassment, workplace safety standards.

The Domestic Workers Standards Board has had remarkable influence on policy, as the law requires any city agency or governing body to act upon the board’s recommendations within 120 days (about 4 months) of the initial notice.

“So, it doesn’t have the authority to actually set new laws, but it does have some teeth,” Viturro said. “It’s a model to build on as it has more authority than certain task forces or commissions that produce reports that end up collecting dust somewhere with no required or committed action.”

Community-Based Solutions for Workers and Employers

While changing public policy is high on the list of effective strategies for building worker power, it is not always an option readily available to workers in cities where the government is not so friendly to worker issues. In states like Texas and Florida, organizers may need to be a little more creative in how they change pay standards and working conditions. And in more receptive areas, community-based solutions can set even higher standards than government policies. Viturro said NDWA has found substantial success with a community organizing model that focuses on direct action at the local level.

In Carroll Gardens, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has partnered with the Carroll Gardens Association to build a “cooperative economy” in the community. The Carroll Gardens Nanny Association, a subset of CGA, has adopted a standards board like the one in Seattle, except it is not formalized by city or state law. The program, called Care Forward, consists of nannies, house cleaners, and employers. The board brings this community of stakeholders together to set neighborhood-wide standards for pay, hours, and resolving workplace problems.

While still in its pilot stages, Care Forward has proven tremendously effective at setting a price floor for all domestic workers in the Carroll Gardens area, sending a strong message to employers that none of the workers in that neighborhood will accept a wage less than the amount set by the standards board.

Organizing and Partnership for the Platform Economy

The digital economy presents its own unique challenges that make organizing difficult, especially for workers classified as independent contractors and people who find work over digital platforms.

Nannies and house cleaners, Viturro told us, are increasingly hired via platforms like Care and Handy, which have all but erased the referral agency model.

Platform-based workers face a unique set of issues. The companies behind apps argue their primary business is to create and maintain the online marketplace, not the services independent contractors within the marketplace provide. As a result, millions of workers, including many domestic workers fall inextricably into an employment category that limits their right organize, pay scales, and hours.

In many cases, the relationship between these tech companies and independent contractors seeking to improve their working conditions has been antagonistic. This is not to say it is impossible to develop an equitable negotiating relationship between workers and platforms, though. Domestic workers in Florida, Indiana, and Kentucky have partnered with Handy—a platform for hiring house cleaning, furniture assembly, and handiwork services—to create a pilot program for reinventing the platform-contractor relationship.

The program establishes a $15 minimum wage for all workers on the platform in those states and allows the independent contractors to accrue $1.50 of paid time off for every hour they work. The program enables independent contractors to earn up to 17 paid days off if they work full-time through Handy. The program also established regular meetings with a workers leadership committee and higher-ups at the company. While this program falls well short of a collective bargaining agreement, it has created an open dialogue between workers and management, raised the wages of all workers on the platform, and ensure paid time off for all employees in those three states. And, when domestic workers see the power of bargaining with employers, it builds their confidence for further collective action.