Use your privilege to their advantage sign domestic workers pledge

When I was growing up, Saturdays were devoted to cleaning house. Both my parents were working full time, they had two kids and Mom was also in school. I remember changing the sheets on all the beds, cleaning the bathroom and vacuuming. It took quite a while. My resistance made chores even more of a chore for my parents. At some point my folks decided to hire a housecleaner to come twice a month. Sadie Reed, an African American woman, worked for us for many years. The contrast in our lives — the increased leisure time and family harmony — was striking, and I deeply appreciated the change as well as Sadie’s wonderful kindness.

Many years later, and with much more consciousness about the power imbalances between employers and in-home care workers, I was somewhat uncomfortable about entering into this imbalanced relationship, and very aware of the privilege involved, but I still prevailed upon my reluctant spouse to hire housecleaners. We have been employing the same set of housecleaners for over five years now, and we feel so grateful for their work.

Housecleaners are part of a large and rapidly growing group of domestic workers who are employed in private homes. This workforce of more than 2 million includes housecleaners, attendants for people with disabilities, in-home child care workers and those who care for seniors. Many are women of color and many are immigrants. Their wages average $9 an hour, below minimum wage in many states. In the next 10 years, an estimated 1 million women will enter the home care field to meet the growing demand of a rapidly aging population — a trend even more marked in the Jewish community. When it comes to housecleaners, the intermittency of their work weighs on me. A monthly cleaning engagement can provide only a tiny portion of their income, meaning they are piecing together many jobs.

In recent years, the domestic workers’ movement has been organizing. These workers have not been protected by federal law: In 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, domestic and agricultural workers were excluded. That exclusion was only rectified in late 2013 by the Obama administration, after years of efforts by unions and the domestic workers’ movement’s Caring Across Generations campaign. Even now, implementation is stalled in the courts.

Jews figure notably among both employers and allies, including Bend the Arc, a longtime partner. In addition to calling attention to the need for basic rights and dignity, the movement  speaks to the desire by employers to be in “right relationship” with their home-based employees. The lead organization working with employers of home-based workers is Hand in Hand, which created the Fair Care Pledge, which commits employers to offer fair pay, paid time off and open communication. Sign it at www.bendthearc.us/actions/sign-fair-care-pledge.

My intention to sign the pledge moved me to do something I had long contemplated. Late in 2013, my spouse and I made a formal commitment to pay our housecleaner one month’s wages (i.e., 1/12th of what we pay over the course of a year) not as a “gift” at our discretion, but as part of our financial relationship with her, the equivalent of paid time off. We asked a neighbor fluent in Spanish to interpret, and in December we sat down for a conversation in our living room with the person from the group we see most often.

We explained that we wanted to check in. We asked, “How is it going? How is the schedule? Any problems? Anything that would make things work better?” She said everything was going fine. We said we would like to hear of any ideas or concerns going forward, and told her we wanted to provide a month’s pay for time off. She asked if we were giving a Christmas gift. “No, not as a Christmas gift, but as a part of compensation you can count on,” we told her. As it became clear that our intention was not to complain or negatively affect our housecleaner’s livelihood, I could see the surprise and relief on her face. I was relieved that she was relieved, but also embarrassed and sad about having caused the momentary distress.

Jewish text offers abundant teachings about the importance of  treating workers fairly. An oft-quoted passage from Leviticus 19:13 directs that “… the wages of a hired servant shall not abide with you all night until the morning.” Although a 12-hour difference may seem immaterial to the employer, the employee may urgently need her pay; moreover, the delay may raise a question about whether she will be paid at all. As our feminist foremothers taught me, the personal is political. What happens at that seam of private and public speaks volumes about our societal priorities and about our personal values.

If home care or housecleaning is your work, let it be work with dignity that provides a living wage. If you employ an in-home caregiver, don’t make your role as an employer undiscussable. Talk about it. Keep moving along a step at a time to improve your practices. Sign the pledge and give yourself the gift of knowing you are moving toward more ethical behavior that aligns with Jewish values, and strengthens families and communities.

Susan Lubeck is the S.F.-based regional director of Bend the Arc, a national Jewish social justice organization.