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Domestic Workers Group Makes First Foray Into Virginia Elections

Matthew Morales
Matthew Morales canvasses with Care in Action. (Photo: Care in Action)

A few years ago, Celeni Young worked as a caregiver for an elderly client who was paralyzed. Young helped her out of bed, prepared her meals, and read to her.

“I considered her a friend,” Young said. “She wasn’t just a client to me.”

The work was rewarding but emotionally draining; the job ended when Young’s client passed away.

Young has seen some of the other pitfalls of domestic work in family and colleagues: long hours, unpaid wages, and limited protections against sexual harassment. A survey of 2,000 workers by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) found that 67% were paid less than their state’s minimum wage and almost as many lacked health insurance.

“Many people are burned out and worn thin,” Young said.

Young is now an organizer with Care in Action, a group seeking to give political influence to domestic workers. The group is the political arm of NDWA, a national network of activist groups seeking to organize an eclectic assortment of 2.5 million homecare workers, nannies and maids. Many are women of color and immigrants.

Care in Action is now making a big push in Virginia’s 2019 elections, hiring over 100 canvassers, launching digital ads, and investing nearly $300,000 to elect 12 women of color. It follows a larger campaign push in Georgia last year.

Domestic workers like home health aides are the fastest growing occupation in Virginia. But they also aren’t covered by some state and federal labor protections. Live-in domestic workers are exempt from federal overtime pay requirements. And because most work for employers with less than 15 employees, they also aren’t protected from sexual harassment and discrimination clauses of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Alexsis Rodgers, who started the group’s Richmond office in July, pointed to legislation passed this year requiring employers to furnish pay stubs as the kind of bill promoted by the group.

“It really starts in Virginia by raising the floor so that all workers have access to some of these protections that we've enjoyed,” Rodgers said.

The group is also seeking to allow domestic workers to form unions and provide greater legal protections against sexual harassment. They’re endorsing women of color in part because of the history of domestic work, which in Antebellum Virginia was often performed by enslaved women.

“Now these jobs are paid jobs, but they are among the lowest paid job,” Rodgers said. “There are many folks who continue to devalue this work and continue to devalue this workforce.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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