Local activists push for better recognition for caregiving professions
Teresa Molina faced abusive, belittling treatment on the job.
The 52-year-old immigrant from Sinaloa, Mexico, says she was paid $500 a month to provide 24-hour, live-in care to a girl in a wheelchair and her family. She wasn't allowed regular breaks. She couldn't eat what she wanted. Even her sleep was disrupted.
"I spoke up a couple times, but when I did, my employer told me I was dumb and good for nothing," Molina, speaking Spanish through a translator, told us. "She would ask my immigration status, and I said that was not important, but she used that as a threat."
Molina is a domestic worker — one of the only two professions (the other being farm work) exempt from federal labor standards.
Her experience, a common one among immigrant women in California, prompted Molina to get involved in last year's California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights campaign, part of national effort that resulted in the first-ever protections being signed into law in New York in 2010.
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the California version of the bill late on the night of Sept. 30, 2012, the deadline for signing legislation, citing the paternalistic concern that better pay and working conditions might translate into fewer jobs or fewer hours for domestic workers.
"I was offended by how he did it, in the middle of the night on the last day, and he basically trivialized it," Assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-SF), who sponsored the measure, told us. "Here in California, it's a major workforce, but there's no rules and there's a documented history of abuses."
But if anything, Brown's veto has energized local activists, who say the battle for domestic worker rights is part of a much larger issue that women, children, immigrants, and their supporters are struggling against as they try to get society to value one of the most basic of social and economic functions: caring and caregiving.
Those in the caregiving professions are used to such defeats, but this one seems to be galvanizing and uniting several parallel movements — most of which have a strong presence here in the Bay Area — that want to apply human values and needs to an economic system that has never counted them.
It is, economists and policy experts say, a profoundly different way to measure economic output — and if the domestic workers and their allies succeed, it could have long-term implications for national, state, and local policy.
There are endless examples of how society undervalues caring and caregiving and other labor that has long been deemed "women's work." They range from nurses fighting for fair contracts to in-home support service workers fighting for their jobs. Many are jobs that have traditionally been done in the home — and in some cases, not counted at all as part of the Gross Domestic Product.
Social work, teaching, administrative support, caring for children or seniors, community organizing, and other jobs held predominantly by women and people of color are consistently among the lowest paid professions.
But the demand for those jobs is increasing — and the price of under-investing in education, caregiving, and child development is decreased productivity and increased crime and other costs for decades to come — so activists say they are critical to the nation's future.
"It's a different perspective. Caregiving isn't transactional the way we think about other jobs," said Alicia Garza, executive director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), which has joined with other organizations nationwide for a Caring Across Generations campaign. "We're a nation that has a growing aging population with no plan for how we're going to take care of these people."
In California today, caregivers find themselves under attack. Despite playing an important role in electing Brown as governor and in keeping Kaiser Hospital in Oakland and CPMC's St. Luke's Hospital in San Francisco open to the low-income residents they serve, the California Nurses Association is still stuck in a years-long contract impasse with those huge hospital corporations.
"We don't think of ourselves first, we think of others first," says Zenei Cortez, a CNA co-president who has been a registered nurse for 33 years, noting that patient care and advocacy standards have been key sticking points in their negotiations.
During each year with a budget shortfall, in-home support services for the sick, elderly, and disabled have been placed on the budgetary chopping block in California and many of its counties — including San Francisco, which has about 21,000 such workers — saved only by political organizing efforts and a longstanding lawsuit against the state (which was just settled on March 20 and will result in an 8 percent across-the-board cut in services).
"This program has been under assault for a full decade," says Paul Kumar, a public policy and political consultant for the National Union of Healthcare Workers, calling that attack short-sighted, in both fiscal and human terms. "People get better care in a home setting."
If people generally act in their financial self interest, as economic theory holds, Oakland resident Lil Milagro Martinez would oppose the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and its requirement that she pay her nanny at least minimum wage and allow for breaks and sick days.
After all, Milagro and her family are barely scraping by, with her husband working four jobs as she balances care for their infant son with coursework as a theology graduate student. Instead, Milagro said, she offers their nanny a living wage, benefits, and good working conditions.
"I wanted to feel that we were affirming her rights, so she would pass on that level of respect to my son," Milagro told us. "If I can do this, and there are companies out there saying they can't afford to do the right thing, that angers me."
She was also angry when Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. She's been working with a domestic worker employer group called Hand in Hand, a part of the larger National Domestic Worker Coalition.
"Our goal is to bring people together to create the kinds of worker relationships they want with people in their homes," Danielle Feris, the national director of Hand in Hand, told us. "There will just be more and more people that need care in the home, so this touches all families."
Milagro and other domestic worker employers say their stand is about much more than enlightened self-interest. They say this is an important step toward recognizing the important contributions that women and minority groups make to society and creating an economy focused on addressing human needs.
"Care, we can say, is undervalued across the board," Feris said.
In addition to reintroducing the bill in Sacramento this year, the coalition is pushing similar legislation in Massachusetts and Illinois.
"I think the domestic workers have done a fantastic job at organizing across the country," Ammiano said. "Making a movement of something isn't easy, but once it gets traction then it's tough to ignore."
Like Milagro and Ammiano, Molina said she was bitterly disappointed by Brown's veto, although all say it only strengthened their resolve to win the fight this year. "I felt very sad, depressed, and betrayed," Molina said. "But we will win this...And I think the movement for women, workers, and immigrants will only grow from us winning."
Domestic Workers Coalition campaign coordinator Katie Joaquin noted that the campaign is about triggering a cultural shift as much as it's about winning legal protections, as important as they may be. "Once this bill passes and we have basic protections doesn't mean the abuses will stop," she said, noting that this is really about valuing care work.
"It's bringing people together around the care we need," Joaquin said. "These are conversations that are breaking new ground. The bill is really something that gets the ball rolling."
Once some household work gets recognized, it's not a big step toward a conversation about valuing all kinds of caring work and including that in our measures of economic progress.
"We definitely support the idea of valuing all care work, both paid and unpaid," Feris said. "We all have something to gain by valuing each other."
Author and researcher Riane Eisler has been a leading thinker and advocate for creating a more caring economy for decades, work that resulted in her seminal 1988 book The Chalice and the Blade, which sold half a million copies and was lauded as a groundbreaking analysis of the gender roles in ancient and modern history. She followed that with The Real Wealth of Nations in 2007, and the creation of the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) and the Caring Economy Campaign.
Eisler takes issue with what most people call "the economy," a wasteful and incomplete system that doesn't actually economize in connecting what we have to what we need. She persuasively argues that it makes sense in both human and fiscal terms to value caring and caregiving, for one another and the natural world, providing myriad examples of countries, cultures, and companies that have benefited from that approach.
"In a way, the concepts are very simple. What could be more simple than saying the real wealth of nations isn't financial? It consists of the contributions of people and nature," Eisler told us by phone from her home in Monterey.
On March 20, Eisler gave a Congressional Briefing (attended by members and staffers in the Rayburn House Office Building) entitled "The Economic Return From Investing in Care Work & Early Childhood Education," presenting a report on the issue that CPS and the Urban Institute released in December: "National Indicators and Social Wealth."
"I think this is extremely timely," Eisler told us, noting that the Republican Party's currently aggressive fiscal conservatism must be countered with evidence that meeting people's real needs is better economic policy than simply catering to Wall Street's interests.
Her address to Congress followed ones that Eisler has given to the United Nations General Assembly and other important civic organizations around the world, and it was followed the next day by an address she gave to the State Department entitled: "What's Good for Women is Good for World: Foundations of a Caring Economy."
While Eisler said "there are people who are very excited about it," she admits that her ideas have made little progress with the public even as the global economy increasingly displays many of the shortcomings she's long warned against. "This is still very much on the margins."
But that could be changing, particularly given the political organizing work that has been done in recent years around the rights of domestic workers and immigrants and on behalf of the interests of children and the poor, some of it drawing on the work of liberal economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.
"The Gross Domestic Product is a very poor measure of economic health," she told us, noting that it perversely counts excessive healthcare spending, rapid resource depletion, and the cleanups of major oil spills as positive economic activity.
Erwin de Leon, a Washington DC policy researcher, opens "National Indicators and Social Wealth" with a quote from a speech that Robert F. Kennedy gave in 1968 criticizing GDP as a bad measure of progress: "It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."
De Leon then writes: "An urgent need met by measuring a nation's social wealth is identifying the attributes of a society that make it possible to create and support the development of the full capacities of every individual through the human life span. Social wealth indicators identify these drivers, with special focus on the economic value of caring for and educating children and the contributions of women and communities of color."
The carefully documented report makes an economic argument that investment in caregiving and early childhood development more than pays for itself over the long run in terms of increased productivity and decreased costs from crime and other social ills, creating a happier and more egalitarian society in the process.
"Nobody talks about the work that immigrant women do and how it contributes to productivity. They free us up to do other things, but we don't count it," De Leon told us in a phone interview. "We put lots of value on numbers and the views of economists. The problem with the numbers is it's an economic number that just values production."
Eisler's approach is neither liberal nor conservative, and she takes equal issue with capitalism and socialism as they've been practiced, labeling them both "domination-based" systems (as opposed to the "partnership-based" systems she advocates) that devalue caregiving and real human needs.
In fact, she seems to be even harder on progressives than those on the other end of the ideological spectrum, given the Left's stated concern for women and communities of color. It was a point that Ammiano echoed: "There's a lot of liberal guilt, but the follow-through has yet to happen."
"What this entails is re-examining everything," Eisler told us. "It starts with examining the underlying beliefs and values."
Even in supposedly enlightened San Francisco, things are getting worse. On March 26, following a battle with SEIU Local 1021 that began last fall, the city's Department of Human Resources submitted to a labor mediator its proposal to lower the salaries for new hires in 43 job categories, including vocational nurses, social workers, and secretaries.
The rationale: Those workers were paid more than market rates based on a survey of other counties. But it's also true that those positions are disproportionately held by women and minorities. In the 1980s, San Francisco made a policy decision to raise the pay of what were traditionally female-dominated professions, part of a nationwide campaign to erase decades of pay inequity.
"The city is rolling back decades of historic work on pay equity in this city," SEIU Political Director Chris Daly told us. "We were concerned about equal treatment of workers who were disproportionately women and people of color."
DHS spokesperson Susan Gard told us, "The city is committed to that principal, equal pay for equal work, and we don't think our proposal erodes that." But she couldn't explain why that was true. In reality, the move will lower the salaries for women that come to work for the city.
Those involved in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign mince no words when it comes to seeing the long history of sexism in political and economic institutions as one of the main obstacles they face.
"In so many ways, domestic work is women's work, and women's work has always been undervalued and underpaid," Milagro said.
She even saw it growing up as child when she accompanied her father when he did housekeeping work, when he was treated "as nonentity, not human," abuse and mistreatment that was exacerbated by the twin facts that he was an immigrant doing women's work.
"Sexism has undervalued care work," Feris said.
Ammiano likened the current struggle to the gay rights movement, and he said that when he started as a teacher back in the 1970s and wanted to teach in the early primary grades, he was told that was for women.
"It's the feminization of labor," Ammiano said. "When you have institutional sexism, you have to peel it back layer by layer."
Eisler is equally direct: "We've all been taught to marginalize anything connected to the feminine," she said.
She noted the vastly disproportionate global poverty rates of women compared to men and said "it's because most are full or part-time caregivers," work that isn't often compensated.
Eisler said the current economic system "marginalizes and dehumanizes half the population," asking how that could ever be considered ethical or equitable. She dismisses arguments that we can't afford to value caregiving or work done in the home, noting that "there's always money for the masculine values" of war and economic expansion.
Ammiano said the cultural blinders that prevent people from seeing how society discriminates against women and the work they do makes the problem more insidious and tougher to solve.
"If they're doing it deliberately, it's almost better because you can sink you teeth into it, but if it's not deliberate then it's tougher to corral," he said.
Yet there could be subtle but important changes underway in how people value the roles of men and women in society.
There are indications that substantial majorities of people increasingly see men and masculine values as a big part of the problems the people of the world are facing. Author John Gerzema, whose forthcoming book is entitled Athena Doctrine: How Women (And the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future, revealed some of the extensive polling research behind his book in a recent TED Talk.
Much of it points to what he called a "global referendum on men," with strong majorities in countries around the world — with Canada the only exception — agreeing with the statements "I'm dissatisfied with the conduct of men in my country" and "The world could be better if men thought more like women."
He and his research partners also had the tens of thousands of people they surveyed rate a list of traits as either masculine or feminine, and then later he had respondents state the traits they most wanted to see in their political leaders, finding that people around the world have begun to strongly prefer feminine traits to male ones in their leaders.
His conclusion: "Femininity is the operating system of 21st Century progress."
The "silver tsunami" — Baby Boomers reaching old age and about to need more care — is about to break.
POWER, Senior Action Network, and many other San Francisco-based organizations in the Caring Across Generations campaign are part of a national push to increase access to and investment in caregiving, from early childhood development through care for those with disabilities to elder care.
"The caregiver industry is something we should invest in," said POWER's Garza. "We believe in a society that values care and we want to value that work."
Yet with short-term, bottom-line thinking guiding the decisions, that requires a bold paradigm shift. Instead, the popular state In-Home Support Services program — which provides some compensation for caregivers of those with disabilities — is now facing an 8 percent cut as part of the recent settlement to lawsuits filed to prevent the 20 percent cut that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had proposed.
The SF-based lawyer who filed the lawsuit, Stacey Leyton, told us this was the best settlement possible given the current political climate and the risk of deeper cuts if the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the state's favor. But she thinks any IHHS cuts are short-sighted: "Any cuts to home care may balance the budget ledger now, but they can cause more costs later in the form of nursing home care and emergency room visits."
James Chionsini, a community organizer with the Senior and Disability Action (SDA, formerly Senior Action Network), tells us that in addition to the sheer size of the "silver tsunami" coming through — which will require a huge influx of caregivers — efforts by the federal and state governments to contain medical costs could hurt the "upper-poor," who are required to somehow pay a share of their MediCal health care costs.
That's one reason why SDA, POWER, and other groups are supporting several campaigns aimed at creating a more caring society, from the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to Caring Across Generations to basic, bread-and-butter political organizing efforts.
"Organizing is so important," Garza said, while Chionsini said, "It's about raising the profile of people who are providing care."
Milagro said that if the immigrant women who do domestic work score a major victory, that could empower other marginalized groups. "It's about a change in consciousness," she said. "This can show a path for other movements to build, strengthen, and work together."
Garza agrees that important, foundational changes are already underway, even though they will require lots of hard organizing work to bring them to fruition.
"There is a groundswell. This is happening," she said, noting that it revolves around asking important questions. "How do you look at an economy not rooted in patriarchy? What would it look like if we had to compensate mothers?"
Next week: Part II, Do we care about the natural world?