Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday December 2nd, 2013, 5:23pm

National Report: Many Domestic Workers Struggle To Make Ends Meet Due To Low Wages, Few Benefits

The country's growing number of in-home workers are more likely to live in poverty compared to those in other occupations due to low wages and the lack of benefits they typically receive, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows.

In 2012, there were nearly 2 million domestic workers, such as nannies, house cleaners and caregivers, most of whom were women and disproportionately immigrant, according to the report. Overall, in-home workers made up 1.6 percent of the nation's total workforce last year.

Many in-home workers are susceptible to exploitation on the job because they typically do not have employment contracts with their employer and often work in the shadows, the report noted.

“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 the report's 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.”

In all, 23.4 percent of in-home workers lived in poverty last year, compared to 6.5 percent of similar workers in other occupations, the study showed. About 29 percent of house cleaners lived below the poverty line in 2012, making them the most likely in-home worker subgroup to be poor.

Also, 51.4 percent of domestic workers had incomes below twice the federal poverty line, which the report cited as a more accurate threshold for what it takes a family to afford basic needs. By comparison, 20.8 percent of similar workers not working in the home lived below twice the official poverty line in 2012. (The federal poverty line in 2012 for a family of four was $23,492, and the “twice poverty” threshold was $46,984).

Meanwhile, just 12.2 percent of in-home workers received health insurance benefits through their job in 2012 and only 7 percent were covered by a pension plan, the study showed.

In 2012, about 20.2 percent of all U.S. domestic workers were not naturalized American citizens, compared with just 8.6 percent of similar employees in other sectors, according to the report.

In-home workers last year took home a median annual earning of $12,252, which is 62.7 percent below the median salary of similar employees in other sectors. The median hourly wage for in-home employees in 2012 was $10.21, less than the median wage of $17.55 for those who are not in-home workers, according to the report.

One-fifth, or 20.8 percent, of the country's domestic workers were employed in the midwest in 2012. Illinois represented the largest piece of that pie, with 4 percent of the midwest's in-home workers being located in the state.

A little more than 21 percent of domestic workers are employed in the northeast, 31.5 percent are in the south and 26.4 percent of the workers are located in the west, the study showed. The largest number of in-home workers in the northeast were located in New York at 11.7 percent. California made up the lion's share in the west at 16.8 percent, and Texas took the south at 9.8 percent.

According to the report, the midwest had the largest concentration of workers, 32.8 percent, who provided childcare in their own homes. Illinois represented the biggest share, 5.3 percent, of those childcare workers.

Illinois' domestic workforce was 94 percent female in 2012. By comparison, about 48 percent of workers in other occupations in the state were women. Nearly 62 percent of the state's domestic workers were white, 24 percent were black and 10.3 percent were Hispanic. The median age for an in-home worker in Illinois was 44.

The majority of Illinois' domestic workers were U.S. born at 75.5 percent, while 24.4 percent were immigrants. Eighteen percent of those immigrant domestic employees were not naturalized U.S. citizens, compared with 9.5 percent of similar Illinois workers in not-in-home occupations.

Emily Twarog, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Labor and Employment Relations, said the findings in the report were not surprising, as in-home work has been historically "underpaid and undervalued labor."

The study, for example, noted that domestic workers have been excluded from protections under state and federal laws extended to those in other industries. “Live-in” workers, for example, are not provided overtime protections as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to the report. Also, the National Labor Relations Act does not cover domestic workers and many in-home employees are also left out from federal protections under the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Back in September, the U.S. Department of Labor announced new regulations that will eventually provide millions of in-home health care workers with the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Illinois, along with 14 other states, however, already offer the state minimum wage and overtime protections to direct care workers. That could be at least one reason why Illinois was home to the largest share of in-home workers out of all the Midwestern states in 2012, Twarog noted.

Among the report's suggestions to improve job quality for in-home workers, individual employers should boost their employees’ wages and benefits, while policymakers should work to extend labor and employment protections so domestic workers are covered. In-home workers would also benefit from policies that look to increase the minimum wage and require paid sick days, the report added.

There is pending state legislation, SB 1708, in the Illinois Senate that would create the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights Act, which would require employers of nannies, house cleaners and caregivers to pay their workers no less than the minimum wage and allow for a least one day off a week. The Senate measure, which hasn't made it out of committee, also calls for written contracts and the right to paid time off, pay for all work hours, meal and rest periods, and an environment free from sexual harassment.

Twarog stressed 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 ... It's skewed female regardless of actually who is doing the work," she said.

"When your providing a service or care, it's typically seen as women's labor, and women's labor has historically been undervalued and underpaid," Twarog added.

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