Recognizing the Exclusion of Domestic Workers

by Venice Sanders

Every day is a gift. Every day, I take a moment to reflect on my life, my livelihood, and my future. As a domestic worker, these thoughts echo consistently in my head. As we acknowledge the 85th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), it is time for me to share those thoughts—and shine a light on the persistent injustice domestic workers face, in part, due to our historical exclusion from FLSA.

This exclusion perpetuates a legacy of discrimination and prejudice and undermines the dignity and worth of an essential profession that cares for lives and loved ones. It is a profound irony that a profession rooted in compassion and service is denied basic safeguards, leaving those of us who dedicate our lives to care in an uncertain and vulnerable position.

It is a profound irony that a profession rooted in compassion and service is denied basic safeguards, leaving those of us who dedicate our lives to care in an uncertain and vulnerable position.

For more than two decades, I have proudly dedicated myself to providing care as a home care worker and Certified Nursing Assistant. Each day, I enter the homes of families and offer my support, comfort, and expertise to those in need. I cook meals, keep people company, listen to their stories, and fulfill the necessary function of human connection. My profession is indispensable. But rights, protections, and fair compensation have long been denied. The exclusion of domestic workers from the FLSA has resulted in a need for equal recognition and protection for our labor. More specifically, domestic workers who provide services to aging adults and people with disabilities were explicitly exempted from protections because Congress did not value this work as “real work.” For example, during a debate on amending the FLSA in 1974, one senator described home care workers as “elder sitters.” It wasn’t until 2013 that the Obama-Biden Administration issued a regulation to extend FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections to two million home care workers. Despite the recent update, the consequences continue to grow.

This exclusion, rooted in a profoundly troubling history that traces back to slavery, has perpetuated a system that devalues the work of predominantly Black women like myself and other women of color.

The impact of this precedent is far-reaching. There’s a care crisis. And we’re feeling it, too. As I unlock the treasure chest of my later years, each passing day becomes a vibrant celebration of the gift of aging. However, I face a disheartening reality. Despite dedicating my years to caring for others, I ask a crucial question: Who will care for me? Already, domestic workers are three times as likely as other workers to experience poverty. The legacy of my profession’s near-75-year exclusion from the FLSA has led to an absence of essential employment benefits, such as medical insurance, retirement plans, and job security, exacerbating my fears and leaving me uncertain about my future well-being.

The fact that domestic workers were not included in FLSA protections for so long creates a problematic cycle of inequality and unpredictability that directly affects our livelihoods. The denial of fundamental rights given to workers in other industries only continues systemic disparities that significantly impact women of color, intensifying the challenges we already face in the labor force.

While the majority of domestic care workers are now legally covered under the FLSA, these workers continue to be underpaid and undervalued due to the legacy of legal exclusions, which were based on racist and sexist perceptions that domestic work is not real work. This persists despite care jobs being some of the fastest-growing jobs in the economy.

It’s high time for society to acknowledge the immeasurable worth of domestic work and end the long-standing injustices our workforce faces. We need to push for reforms that dismantle the discriminatory practices entrenched in our labor laws, guarantee fair wages, provide access to comprehensive benefits, and create better working conditions for all domestic workers. It’s time to prioritize the well-being of those who work tirelessly to maintain our homes and care for our loved ones.

As we mark the 85th anniversary of the FLSA, let us reflect on the progress made and recognize the work that lies ahead. Domestic work is a dignified, valuable, and honorable profession; it plays a vital role in sustaining our communities, and we ask for reciprocity and care in return. It is time to end the devaluation of domestic work and affirm the dignity, worth, and humanity of those who care for our homes and loved ones.

Domestic work is an emblematic reminder of our shared humanity in a world where the value of human connection is often overlooked. It is a profession that encapsulates the enduring values of compassion, empathy, and interconnectedness, which will remain eternally relevant. As we look towards the future, let us champion the cause of domestic work, recognizing its irreplaceable role in preserving the dignity of both workers and recipients. By reframing our perception and nurturing a newfound respect for this profession—and by ensuring we receive the wages, benefits, and protections we deserve—we lay the foundation for a brighter, more compassionate future.

Venice Sanders is a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a home care worker, and a certified nursing assistant.

Read essays from workers and advocates whose direct experience with the FLSA’s shortcomings offers a starting point for discussion and action to change it:

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