Analysis Human Rights

Finally, Domestic Workers Get Basic Labor Protections

Sheila Bapat

On Tuesday, the White House approved regulations extending basic labor protections for domestic workers. A confluence of events enabled these regulations to come about—some political, but more movement-driven.

Evelyn Coke, a Jamaica-born domestic worker, spent her career caring for the elderly in New York, earning $7 an hour with no overtime pay. Coke fought to change an old law that excluded her and millions of other caregivers, most of them immigrant women, from earning fair wages, but the Supreme Court rejected her plea in 2007. On Tuesday, years after her 2009 death, her efforts—and the efforts of many others in the domestic workers’ movement—finally paid off when the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) approved regulations extending wage and overtime protections to domestic workers.

As the New York Times reports, the new rules will mean that “[i]f an aide or companion provides ‘care’ that exceeds 20 percent of the total hours she works each week, then the worker is to receive minimum wage and overtime protections.” The rules, which will take effect in 2015, apply to home care workers who are hired by agencies.

Domestic workers’ rights advocates are thrilled with the news. As Sarah Leberstein, staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, told Rewire, “We haven’t finished digesting the rules and the DOL materials that accompanied them, but our initial analysis is that the revised rules will result in the extension of federal minimum wage and overtime rights to the vast majority of home care workers, which is what we had hoped for.”

Caring About Care Workers

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A confluence of events enabled these regulations to come about—some political, but more movement-driven, demonstrating just how tenacious the modern “alt-labor” movement has become.

Federal-level attention to domestic labor really began with Barack Obama. After the Supreme Court ruling in Coke’s case, then-presidential candidate Obama pledged to revise the companionship exemption. He also appointed Hilda Solis to lead the Department of Labor. A longtime workers’ rights organizer, Solis worked closely with domestic labor activists to revise the companionship exemption. The process was long, and perhaps deliberately, lasted President Obama’s entire first term.

But in order for Obama to care about this issue, the mainstream feminist and labor movements had to care first. The foundation for Tuesday’s victory was laid when these movements became more inclusive of domestic worker issues.

People who link the feminist and labor movements, like National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) Director Ai-jen Poo, were especially essential. Poo’s focus on organizing domestic workers began when she started volunteering with domestic violence survivors at the New York Asian Women’s Shelter. “That’s when I began to see the connections between living a violence-free life and economic opportunity,” Poo said last year at NDWA’s Manhattan office. “That made me understand the importance of organizing workers. I’ve always believed it’s important to make the invisible visible. And valuing that which has been taken for granted is something that I’ve always instinctually known is the key to the kind of society I want to live in and raise my children in.”

As part of her work with the Asian Women’s Shelter, Poo organized events in low-income Asian communities, including health fairs; she says many of the people who would attend and take an interest were domestic workers. Poo became a tireless leader for domestic workers and was also deeply connected with feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem.

Though there are still feminist writers who conclude that the wage gap is not as substantial as we think, or that women have already made enough progress, the importance of care work and its relevance in the economy is now a growing part of feminist discussion.

Care workers’ concerns have also gained value in the labor movement—even as U.S. labor has historically been led by men and at times has sidelined “women’s issues.” This is evidenced by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka fighting hard for domestic workers’ legislation. And it was longtime labor advocate and AFL-CIO general counsel Craig Becker who represented Evelyn Coke in her case.

Becker, too, is thrilled by the new domestic workers’ regulations, as he told Rewire: “Having had the privilege of representing Evelyn Coke in the Supreme Court and of working with home care workers across the country to secure the same workplace rights enjoyed by other American workers, including the right to be paid the minimum wage and more for overtime, I am extremely happy that the Department of Labor has brought Ms. Coke’s long struggle for justice to a successful conclusion.”

State Protections for Care Workers

All of this caring about care work is still very new—in the United States and globally. Including domestic workers within labor protections is even more groundbreaking. Minimum wage and overtime protections became codified in U.S. labor law during the New Deal, but the Fair Labor Standards Act passed to allow a “companionship exemption” that allowed these workers to be paid less than a minimum wage and excludes them from overtime protections. At that time, most state labor laws excluded domestic workers as well.

The domestic workers’ movement has made headway in states over the past decade. According to the National Employment Law Project, 21 states have some protections in place for home care workers, many of whom are paid with Medicare dollars. New York and Hawaii both improved labor protections for privately-paid domestic workers in the past three years. Bills to improve wages and protect workers from abuse are alive in several other states as well, though Oregon’s bill failed this year. Vans filled with workers and community organizers have traveled to state capitals throughout the country to lobby for improved protections.

And last week, the California legislature passed AB 241, a domestic workers’ bill of rights. Carlos Alcala, spokesperson for Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), AB 241’s sponsor, told Rewire last week, “We feel good based on discussions we’ve had with the governor’s office and the administration. Although we don’t have an agreement we believe we’re headed in the right direction and are hopeful that he will sign this bill.”

California has now passed a domestic workers’ bill of rights three times, the first time in 2006, when former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed. (This was years after Schwarzenegger had already fathered a child with his housekeeper.) Last year, to the surprise of domestic workers’ advocates, Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) vetoed a domestic workers’ bill of rights that would have established overtime protections and other protections for domestic workers.

It is not yet clear whether Gov. Brown will sign or veto AB 241, but we should know this month.

The Way Forward

The deeper purpose behind the regulations that the White House approved Tuesday is ensuring that all workers are treated with fairness and respect. But much work remains to ensure new laws are implemented, and ensuring that other vulnerable communities are on board with the domestic workers’ movement is crucial as well. As such, strengthening Medicaid and Medicare and securing better conditions for care workers, as well as focusing on immigration reform, are goals of the domestic workers’ movement.

“The new regulations are a huge step forward for this critically important workforce,” Sarita Gupta, co-director of Caring Across Generations, told Rewire. “The level of progress feels great—but tomorrow we start organizing again because this is just the first step forward.”

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.

Culture & Conversation Family

Dating Up, Settling Down: Moira Weigel’s Book Details Shifts in Courtship

Eleanor J. Bader

How Americans find partners has changed according to economic prospects, women's changing roles, and social movements.

For decades, the New York Times wedding section has been offering accounts of so-called good matches: pairings that connect people of similar class backgrounds and educational levels, with compatible values, interests, and tastes. While the narratives have become more diverse over the years—the paper now acknowledges same-sex nuptials, for examplethe newspaper’s accounts of how folks met and fell head-over-heels continue to provide an entertaining window into the coupling of America’s lovebirds.

Moira Weigel’s first book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) enters this territory, delving into U.S. social mores about dating and marriage. It explores how capitalism has influenced attitudes about women and family, and addresses how economic shifts affect domestic life and intimate relations. Although much of the historical information has been written about before (notably by writers including Elizabeth Abbott, Stephanie Coontz, Kathy Peiss, and Ruth Rosen), Weigel’s easy-to-read overview ties past to present and brings the material into the 21st century. The end result is a fascinating but limited look at trends among mostly white, middle-to-upper class cisgender heterosexuals.

“All human societies, and many animal ones, have always had courtship rituals,” Weigel writes in the book’s introduction. “They have not all had dating. The male, blue-footed booby does a mean mating dance, but he does not date. Neither did Americans until around 1900. Since then, experts have constantly declared that dating was dead or dying. The reason is simple. The ways people date change with the economy.”

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To wit: In the 1890s, a serious economic downturn pushed many young, single women off the family farm and into city-based jobs. By 1900, Weigel reports, more than half of all U.S. women were working outside the home—most commonly in laundries, textile plants, and in domestic service. Because they were paid much less than men, they relied on male suitors to take them out, whether to restaurants, saloons, dance halls, amusement parks, or nickelodeons.

This sometimes caught the attention of the police. Weigel notes that “in the eyes of the authorities, women who let men buy them food and drinks or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.”

The class politics of these encounters were particularly glaring since the upper crust was slow to incorporate dating into its social rites. In fact, “calling” remained in vogue for ladies of leisure until World War I. This required a young woman to decide whether to allow male visitors to see her in the family parlor, albeit with an adult chaperone. After the suitor presented his card, the girl decided whether she wanted to fraternize. If she did, he entered. If not, he was sent away; both scenarios reinforced the idea that men were the seekers and women the sought.

Meanwhile, “charity girls” made it clear that if they accepted a date, the man was responsible for buying them whatever they wanted, from a pack of cigarettes to a meal. By the second decade of the 20th century, however, this practice had not only lost the taint of disapproval, but was consistently described as romantic in novels, short stories, and popular magazines. After all, “nice girls” had shrugged off concerns about the practice and were openly appreciative of the perks that came their way.

By the “Roaring Twenties,” Weigel writes, many working-class women felt free to express an overt interest in dating or marrying “up.” As opportunities to work in department stores, restaurants, and offices expanded, clerks, secretaries, and waitresses could potentially marry the boss or catch a wealthy patron’s eye.

The growing cosmetics industry took advantage of this ideological shift, giving women a way to telegraph “that she valued her femininity and was willing to spend time and money on her appearance.” Alongside frequent magazine articles that described the feminine “beauty duty,” women were told how to market themselves, as if they were products to be consumed by male shoppers.

Any other alternative to heterosexual romance seemed near-impossible, even scorn-worthy, and while a small LGBTQ community was coming into its own in several big cities, homophobia kept the vast majority of individuals from publicly coming out.

Weigel’s nod to queer culture—including bars and clubs catering to gay men, lesbians, and “drag” performances—is brief; nonetheless, the book includes several vivid descriptions of “the secret theater” that allowed LGBTQ folks to be themselves in a few urban settings.

Still, it was World War II that allowed a crack in the closet door. As Weigel writes: “During the war, the armed forces had been eager to enlist recruits, and many young gays and lesbians who felt isolated in their hometowns saw military service as a chance to escape.”

The book says nothing, however, about the many “Rosies” who took to riveting and left me wondering how—or if—their employment affected dating and sexual behavior. Despite this gap, Weigel writes that by the end of the war, straight shop girls, secretaries, and waitresses were sharpening their flirtation skills in order to find a man, leave the workforce, and pursue domesticity.

In addition, college girls followed an equally well-honed script to earn an “M.R.S.” degree. College, as Weigel explains it, gave those with the resources for postsecondary schooling a chance to mingle freely, date openly, and “pet” before marriage. Going “all the way,” however, was explicitly verboten. As popular culture presented it in the early 20th century, female virginity was a woman’s most cherished asset. According to Weigel, “as soon as she married, America about-faced. Not only should a young wife have sex, she should have lots of sex, and she should like it. If you do not like sex as much as your husband, your marriage will not be well-adjusted,” the media warned.

Betty Freidan pinpointed the contradictory messages about sex, marriage, monogamy, work, and love that bombarded middle class stay-at-home wives and mothers decades later when she published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The critique resonated. But Friedan also had critics. “Because African American women had always worked outside their homes,” Weigel points out, “ever since their ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves, they did not mistake the ‘opportunity’ to work as an adequate solution to all the problems that women had to deal with. … [Black and working-class women] knew that earning a wage was not a fix-all. In fact, many black feminists attested that in their homes was the only place that they felt respite from a racist world.”

A few years later, when the Free Love movement elbowed its way into popular consciousness, many male adherents seemed to forget that women could not legally abort unwanted pregnancies. Needless to say, Free Love did little to change gender roles or equalize gender dynamics. By the end of the 1960s, Weigel notes that hippies began to realize that creating a new world was going to be a lot harder than they had initially anticipated. “They had not clearly established who would do the things that still needed to be done,” she writes. “In the absence of a plan, they often fell back into highly stereotyped gender roles.”

Yuppies eventually replaced hippies and rejected the indiscriminate coupling of the previous generation. What’s more, the advent of AIDS in the 1980s coincided with workforce changes that encouraged telecommuting and longer hours on site. Taken together, these changes have had a marked impact on how we date, whether we date, and how we partner.

In fact, by the 1980s, Weigel reports that many highly educated heterosexual women were pushing to marry their intellectual and social equals. Perhaps more startling, not only did yuppies want to marry other yuppies, they began to see dating as similar to other work. New businesses popped up to accommodate them: speed dating, virtual dating assistants to “manage” their social engagements, and a wide array of dating apps and online services to connect them with a potential Mr. or Ms. Right.

But despite the assistance, all was still not well in Dating Land. Many considered going out with a stranger to be a chore, “less like a pleasurable diversion and more like one more thing to fit in.” Then, as messages about one’s biological clock start to tick, the market in assisted reproductive technologies increased the disquiet. Add in bestselling books like The Rules, Ignore the Guy, Get the Guy, and It’s Not Him, It’s You, and the retro message that every 30-something needs to settle down started to blare. If one listens closely enough, the declaration is unmistakable: No heartbreak can compare to turning 40 and being unmarried and childless.

To her credit, Weigel challenges this absurdity, but Labor of Love never deconstructs the equally damaging idea that every person has a soulmate and needs to find this person in order to be complete. Where this notion comes from remains a mystery. Nonetheless, as the linchpin for most romantic mythology, it deserves an attentive and complete undressing. Likewise, the dating games of nonwhite, working-class and low-income individuals, and religious immigrants need the same attention and scrutiny that Weigel gives to rich professionals.

Furthermore, anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that finding a potential mate is merely the starting point. The real labor of love comes long after the initial attraction and centers on the daily work of keeping the relationship going. At the end of the day, dating may have been an invented form of social engagement, but the chase is meaningless if the parties never hunker down in the muck of everyday life.