The Real Value of In-Home Care Work in the United States

Care worker with elderly womanBy Caroline Dobuzinskis

Baby Boomers, estimated at nearly 80 million in the United States, began turning 65 in 2011.By 2020, the population of older adults is expected to grow to 55 million from 40.4 million in 2010. As more women enter the labor force and fewer are able to care for older family members, providing in-home care to the growing aging population, as well as the disabled and chronically ill, is becoming more critical to a robust U.S. economy.

A new briefing paper by IWPR, “Women and the Care Crisis: Valuing In-Home Care in Policy and Practice,” outlines these challenges but emphasizes that, despite the growing demand, in-home care work jobs continue to be undervalued and underpaid.

While often working long hours to care for others, many in-home care workers cannot afford to take care of their own needs. According to IWPR’s analysis, the median weekly earnings for all female in-home care workers are $308, compared with $560 for all female workers in the U.S. workforce. In-home care workers are also excluded from coverage by the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law that helps ensure basic standards of living for U.S. workers by requiring employers to pay minimum wages and provide overtime compensation.

The general lack of value placed on paid care work is due to a number of complex factors. Research suggests that what is seen as traditionally women’s labor, at all skill levels, reaps lower economic rewards. The simple fact that the majority of paid care work is performed by women could contribute to its lower average wages. Care work also blurs the lines between formal and informal labor, which can result in the workers being perceived as part of the family and make it more difficult for them to set boundaries that define the requirements and terms of their jobs.

Many in-home care workers are immigrants who may lack pathways to legal status, leaving them vulnerable to low levels of pay and to abuses from employers. According to IWPR research analysis, 90 percent of home health care aides in the United States are women, 56 percent are women of color, and 28 percent are foreign-born with the vast majority (60 percent) migrating from Latin America and the Caribbean. Despite the fact that these immigrant workers are filling an essential labor gap, many remain undocumented and without clear access to citizenship or visa status. Many domestic worker and immigrant groups are waiting to see if Congress will address this issue.

Among the recommendations in IWPR’s report, Increasing Pathways to Legal Status for Immigrant in-Home Care Workers (published February 2013), is an increase in the number and types of immigration visas available to immigrant care workers to help fill the labor shortage in the U.S. industry. The most recent immigration deal being crafted the “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of U.S. senators tasked with finding immigration reform solutions, includes an option to provide temporary work visas to undocumented immigrants performing essential, low-skilled labor.

IWPR’s briefing paper, “Women and the Care Crisis: Valuing In-Home Care in Policy and Practice,” proposes several changes that would improve circumstances for all care workers and recipients, as well as the industry as whole, including:

1. Encouraging public dialogue about the growing need for care work and the skills and contributions of those who provide in-home care

2. Improving estimates of the value of unpaid care work and making the public more aware of this work’s critical importance to the nation’s economy.

3. Implementing public policies that affirm the value of care work and those who provide it.

4. Creating more quality in-home care work jobs that will improve the employment prospects of the female workforce, help to reduce inequality, and strengthen the U.S. economy overall.

Many groups and organizations, such as Caring Across Generations, support improved workers rights for care workers nationwide. New York State passed a law entitling domestic workers to, among other provisions, a minimum wage, pay for overtime hours, one day of rest for every seven days, and at least three paid leave days per year after one year of work for the same employer. Further policies are still needed that affirm the value of care work in order to reduce the inequality in wages for these workers and strengthen the U.S. economy overall.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

The Path to Pay Equity

By Caroline Dobuzinskis and Ariane Hegewisch

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a class action lawsuit brought against Walmart by six plaintiffs representing 1.5 million employees did not have sufficient evidence to prove a corporate-wide policy in discrimination—and could not qualify as a class action suit for monetary damages.

This is potentially a major blow to the reduction of discrimination by large employers—and an obstacle in making pay equality a reality in the United States. IWPR research has shown that, through class action suits, consent decree litigations imposed on employers requiring changes in policy or behavior can help to eliminate discrimination in the workplace. Transparency and monitoring can ensure that these changes take hold in the long term, and create a shift in corporate policy away from discriminatory practices in corporate hiring and promotions.

Still a Long Way to Go for Pay Equality

The gender wage gap is real and will be around for some time. Women’s median annual earnings are only 77 percent of men’s and, according to an IWPR estimate, pay equity will not be reached until 2056.

Discrimination has been shown to be one of the factors that create the gender wage gap. Even after estimates control for age, experience, education, occupation, industry and hours of work, 41 percent of the wage gap remains.

In principle, the groundwork for eliminating pay inequality was laid almost five decades ago when President Joseph F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act (EPA) in 1963 to prevent pay discrimination against women. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate in terms of pay or employment conditions, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. After these historic legislative advances, progress in closing the gender wage gap has slowed in recent decades.

Experts Weigh in on Pay Fairness

A recent briefing on Capitol Hill attracted a standing-room-only crowd interested in hearing how to make pay equality the new reality—both in principle and in practice. The June 9 briefing was organized jointly by IWPR and the National Women’s Law Center, and was sponsored by longstanding pay equity champions Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro who recently reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to both Houses of Congress.

Pay Secrecy Often Goes Hand in Hand with Pay Discrimination

At the briefing, Ariane Hegewisch, Study Director at IWPR, argued that protection from pay discrimination exists in principle. But close to half of all workers and over 60 percent of private sector workers cannot discuss their pay—making pay equality difficult to ensure in practice.  Some workers can face disciplinary action, and even immediate dismissal, if they are caught discussing wages.

Fatima Goss Graves, Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center, noted that the issue of pay secrecy did not receive much media attention in reporting on Walmart v. Dukes despite plaintiffs in the case expressing fear at employer retaliation if they discussed pay.

While pay secrecy policies and practices do not prove the presence of wage discrimination, IWPR’s recent research on sex and race discrimination settlements suggests that pay secrecy and wage discrimination often go hand in hand.

Carol Golubock, Director of Policy at SEIU- Service Employees International Union, added that in principle workers have the right to discuss their pay under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA). Because of weak enforcement and the absence of punitive damages or injunctive relief, however, many employers continue to get away with having explicit pay secrecy clauses.

Paycheck Fairness Act Prevents Pay Secrecy

All experts on the panel at the briefing emphasized the positive changes that could be brought through passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act—focusing in particular on its capacity to prohibit employer retaliation against workers who discuss salaries and wages. The impact of reducing pay secrecy could reach also hourly workers, helping them to ensure they are receiving their due through minimum wage and overtime laws.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would also spur growth in the economy and assist working families. Goss Graves pointed to the wider benefits that equal pay can have on families, especially single mothers, and communities. As overall tax revenues increase, more money is put in the economy, and more money available to keep children out of poverty and address their needs.

Adding to the discussion on pay equality, one panelist presented another facet of the unequal pay conundrum that lies outside of legislation. Lilla Hunter-Taylor, CEO of an employee recruitment company called The Staff Hunter, said she frequently encounters clients seeking women candidates because women do not negotiate as aggressively as men.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Ariane Hegewisch is a Study Director with IWPR.