Ai-jen Poo is the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to bring quality work, dignity and fairness to the growing numbers of workers who care and clean in our homes, a workforce that is disproportionately immigrants and women of color. With the help of more than 280,000 domestic workers, NDWA has won a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in nine states and the cities of Seattle and Philadelphia, and brought more than 2 million home care workers under minimum wage protections. In 2011, Poo launched Caring Across Generations, a campaign to address the nation’s crumbling care infrastructure, catalyzing groundbreaking policy change including the nation’s first family caregiver benefit in Hawaii and the first long-term care social insurance fund in Washington State. She is the author of “The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America,” a widely acclaimed book that makes the case for access to care for all families. Peter and Ai-jen will explore the issues of equity and justice and how they intersect with Poo's work around securing a living wage for domestic workers and quality of life for the elders they serve.
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On the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the domestic care workforce
"I can't overemphasize that I've never seen anything like the level of economic and also social and emotional devastation that people are feeling in this time. We have to take action to support people right now. This cannot continue."
On Black Lives Matter and the protests for racial justice
"I think we're seeing a rebellion against the legacy of slavery and structural racism that has shaped so much of our culture and our systems in this country, policing being front and center. And a real reckoning in every corner of society around why it is still this way. Why haven't we been able to dismantle these systemic inequities over so many years? How can it be that it's still dangerous to simply live for Black people?"
"This is not a spectator sport. So my hope is that the the movement for Black Lives' call to action can really help us all own this project in a new way of combating structural racism, addressing anti black racism, but also seeing how it permeates so much of what we do, from our work on the care economy to our work on aging. It's all it's all in there."
On immigration and domestic care work
"The largest concentration of undocumented workers in any industry is in domestic care work. These are the women who we entrust with our children, our parents who raised us -- the most important people in our lives. They have families too. And they are a part of the lifeblood. They're a huge part of our care infrastructure in this country, and it's time that we invested in them."
Get Involved: Resources, Organizations, Bills, and Policy Work Mentioned in the Episode
- Coronavirus Care Fund from the National Domestic Workers Alliance
- CareTogether: Cargiver Coronavirus Support Line from National Domestic Workers Alliance
- COVID-Ready Caregiver Training and Certification from NextStep and National Domestic Workers Alliance
- Elizabeth Warren and Ro Khanna Unveil Essential Workers Bill of Rights
- HEROES Act
- National Domestic Workers Alliance Petition asking Senators to Pass the HEROES Act
- Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act
- LeverAGE, ASA's policy podcast
- Caring Across Generations
Peter Kaldes 0:04
Hi, everyone, I'm Peter Kaldes, the CEO of the American Society on Aging, and I want to welcome you to another episode of Future Proof. On this episode, we have Ai-jen Poo, who is the Co-founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to bring quality work, dignity and fairness to the growing numbers of workers who care and clean in our homes, a workforce that is disproportionately immigrants and women of color. She is also the author of the "Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America," a widely acclaimed book that makes the case for access to care for all families. Ai-jen, welcome to Future Proof.
Ai-jen Poo 0:48
Thanks, Peter. It's great to talk to you.
Peter Kaldes 0:50
So today we'll be addressing the issues of equity and justice and how they intersect with your very important work around securing a living wage for domestic workers and improving the quality of life for the elders that they serve. But I wanted to first start off and ask that you share with us a little bit about the work that you do at the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Ai-jen Poo 1:13
Absolutely. So we represent the two and a half million, mostly women, a few good men, and disproportionately women of color, who work in our homes every day. And we call it "the work that makes all other work possible," because it enables all of us to go to work or do what we do, knowing that some of the most important aspects of our lives are in good hands.
So they take care of our children as nannies. They take care of our aging parents and our loved ones with disabilities as homecare workers and they clean. And this is work that is absolutely essential and always has been. The work of the National Domestic Workers Alliance is to uplift this workforce to create pathways to good jobs and real economic opportunity. And to really bring the kind of dignity and respect to this work that it so deserves. And so our community is about 230,000 strong of domestic workers around the country and we are fighting for policy change, to change our culture. We also build innovative new products to improve the quality of work in the sector. And we build strong coalitions with all the people in this country who we call "the caring majority" who really care about care.
Peter Kaldes 2:52
I'm wondering if you could also react to the Biden campaign's real embrace of these issues. It strikes me that there are a number of policy suggestions that seem to align with some of your advocacy efforts.
Ai-jen Poo 3:08
Yes, it's actually quite exciting and historic to see a candidate for President of the United States put the care economy front and center in an economic recovery plan. I think for many of us, we're sometimes used to having the care economy be a women's issue, or some kind of a special interest side issue, but never front and center in an economic plan. And that, to me feels like a big breakthrough and the kind of breakthrough that happens as a result of lots of advocacy, organizing, and planting seeds on the part of many, many groups and leaders, where we have said that care is fundamental. It's central it's something that connects us all. And it's part of the infrastructure that we need in this country. But we've never invested in it. We don't actually have a care infrastructure in this country to support working families. And I think making the argument over and over again, that's what movements do. Movements expand the realm of what's possible in politics and policy. And I think what we've seen is the work of many organizations and leaders and communities over a long period of time making the argument, seeding the ground, proving the concept, and it's being embraced now in such a powerful way. I think it's potentially transformative.
Peter Kaldes 4:46
Yeah, anytime you get that kind of national attention on such a critical issue, it really is game changing. And that just builds on the momentum that, no doubt, you've already been a driving forward. So thank you for your leadership on on these important issues.
I want to pivot a little bit and talk about the pandemic, and talk about the pandemic's impact on your members and the work you're doing.
Ai-jen Poo 5:10
This pandemic has been just devastating. I know all of us have been thrown into crisis in many ways, and all of us have been impacted. But I think that domestic workers in particular came into the COVID crisis from a place of a tremendous amount of insecurity. The workforce earns poverty wages, much lower than the average median wage for workers across the country. About $11 an hour. So there wasn't money to stock up on groceries. Eighty-two percent of domestic workers didn't have a single paid sick day going into the COVID crisis, and no access to a safety net or job security.
So really early on, we started seeing dramatic losses in jobs and income and a tremendous amount of fear around food insecurity, around paying the bills, and even something as simple as keeping your phone bill paid so that your kid can get access to remote learning through your phone. These were the kinds of impossible situations that workers were placed into early on. And then you had a group of domestic workers who continued to work through the crisis and are still working as essential workers. Some of the homecare workers, who are the only lifeline to some of the people who are most vulnerable to the virus itself--people with chronic illnesses, older people, people with disabilities--those homecare workers had to figure out how to continue to provide the critical life saving services that they provide without PPE, without health care, oftentimes without access to testing and without any kind of increase in pay, to be able to support their increased costs and their kids home from school. So it's just been a devastating situation. And today some domestic workers have gone back to work and what we're hearing is that the wages are depressed, they're lower than they were pre-pandemic, and that we're still at 40% unemployment and plateauing there. So about 40% of our members are still struggling to find work. And so it's just a really, really difficult time. I can't overemphasize that I've never seen anything like the level of economic and also social and emotional devastation that people are feeling in this time. We have to take action to support people right now. This cannot continue.
Peter Kaldes 7:51
One thing that advocates know works when it comes to convincing policymakers to drive change to make change is data. And I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about the demographics that folks may not be aware of when it comes to direct care workers?
Ai-jen Poo 8:08
Well, direct care workers are overwhelmingly women. Domestic workers are more than 90% women. And there's a segment of them that are direct care workers who are majority women. And also majority women of color--Black Latinx, Asian--so lots of immigrant women of color who do this work. It's a very diverse workforce. And it is a workforce where the majority are primary income earners for their families as well. So not only are they pivotal to supporting the families that they support and provide services to, but they're critical in their own families and their own communities in terms of economic security and stability. And so they're really at the center of so much. That's why they've been really on the frontlines of this crisis.
Peter Kaldes 9:08
Can you share a little bit some more of the specific challenges that some of your members and the population that you're serving faced and, you know, how, are you working to ameliorate it?
Ai-jen Poo 9:22
Well, the first challenge that we knew immediately was just a complete lack of access to any kind of relief. So some of the relief efforts that we've seen at the federal level, actually have not reached domestic workers and care workers. And so whether it's the unemployment insurance, or whether it's the $1,200 relief checks, most domestic workers actually didn't get access and so there's an urgent need for cash immediately. Which is why we established the Coronavirus Care Fund, which is an Emergency Assistance Fund to domestic workers who've been impacted in the COVID crisis. And, you know, it's been a really beautiful thing to see. We've had over 150,000 individuals and institutions contribute to the fund. And it was everyone from, major donors to other domestic workers who had jobs and knew that their colleagues didn't and wanted to make sure that they contributed, to everyday people who were thinking about who might be affected more directly than themselves in this COVID crisis who can't work remotely. You can't do domestic work from Zoom. That outpouring of generosity has been really tremendous. And we've raised over $31 million for the for the fund.
We're also hearing that the isolation and the pressure and the stress and anxiety of continuing to work as a caregiver on the front lines through the pandemic has been overwhelming. So we created an emotional support crisis text line called Care Together. It' designed to support care workers to be able to reach out when they need some support, someone to talk to, someone to know and to say, "We see you. And we know this is really hard, and you're going to make it." Care Together has been an important resource.
And then the final thing I'll mention is we partnered with Leading Age, to create a COVID Ready Caregiver training program, to make sure that for the caregivers who are continuing to work through this crisis had all the best public health resources at their disposal to help prepare them to stay safe, to keep themselves safe and their clients safe in the midst of this crisis.
So that gives you a little bit of a sense of what we're doing. But I'll say that we can't replace the role of having a strong safety net and the role of government in this time. We need government to step up and to make sure that all the people who need relief and support right now can get access to it. The only way we're going to recover from this crisis is if every single person is in a position to be a part of the solution and the recovery process. We have so many essential workers who have been left out ,who we need to invest in and support in this time. It's a call to all of us to remind our elected officials, whose job it is to govern through crises like these, to make sure that that we are providing comprehensive relief, and the building blocks for recovery that are inclusive of people like our care workers.
Peter Kaldes 11:54
You know, you're describing a real sense of urgency that drove you to act and to take action and to raise $31 million for those that you serve. I'm wondering, why do you think Congress or Government doesn't seem to have the same sense of urgency on these matters?
Ai-jen Poo 13:10
I've been asking myself this question, Peter, every single day. You know, I keep hearing about Senators going on vacation or the White House Chief of Staff going on vacation and walking out of negotiations around the next Senate relief package. And I just cannot understand, when so many people in our country are suffering. It is just unconscionable to me. I just I can't make any meaning of it, but that maybe they don't think it's politically salient. Or maybe they think, I don't know. I don't maybe they see it as not their role. I, I just can't quite figure it out. What do you think about that?
Peter Kaldes 13:54
I think there's just a fundamental lack of empathy. I really do. I think in order to run for office, you should be trained on empathy and really try and get a sense of the variety of people you will be representing and will be expected to serve. And I just suspect there's a fundamental lack of empathy. And, you know, at times, I think it's easy to point the finger to one political party or another. And policy platforms will reflect varying degrees of empathy. But I do think that, particularly during this time, there's just a lack of empathy to just to drive change and to help people. It's really, you're right, it's unconscionable. It's just crazy.
Ai-jen Poo 14:44
I don't understand how we got there. I also know that it's not the majority of this country, we are people who care. There's a reason why at Caring Across Generations we call us the "caring majority." We are 100% convinced that the majoritarian position of Americans is to be empathetic and caring. And so they are not representing us. In a nutshell. And I guess the other thing I would say is, maybe we should have a moratorium on electing people to government who don't believe in governing.
Peter Kaldes 15:29
Right. Why are you running for office to do what, just to fundraise? I agree running for office to be in a position of power that could actually change people's lives and you believe in a role that government has to play in our society for it to function. Everyone should pass some sort of basic run-for-office tests, like we all pass citizenships tests, if we're looking for being naturalized. I just think that there should be some standard board entry exam to run for office.
Ai-jen Poo 16:02
It's pretty basic. That point at least.
Peter Kaldes 16:13
You're absolutely right. It's refreshing to see such diversity in the potential incoming class in Congress. At the local level, you see, historically marginalized communities being well represented by new fresh ideas, new fresh people. I mean, it's really game changing. It's just sad that you don't see that same sort of energy right now when we most need it to make change.
I do want to pivot a little bit again and talk about where we are seeing a lot of energy. And that is on on the streets and talking about racial justice. Could you just reflect a little bit on on what you've seen in this country the last few months.
Ai-jen Poo 17:06
I think we're seeing a rebellion against the legacy of slavery and structural racism that has shaped so much of our culture and our systems in this country, policing being front and center. And a real reckoning in every corner of society around why it is still this way. Why haven't we been able to dismantle these systemic inequities over so many years? How can it be that it's still dangerous to simply live for Black people? I think it's a such a long overdue conversation and the momentum around it is extraordinary. And it's not inevitable that it results in real systems and structural reforms, and lasting culture shifts, which is I think what really needs to happen. And so that's the opportunity there is to really think about from all the vantage points whether you're in a company, or you're in a nonprofit, or you're in government, or wherever you sit: What are 10 ways that you can shift policy and culture that you are a part of proactively to catalyze lasting change out of these moments?
I had a mentor who said that there are times when history moves faster, where more transformation is possible. And I think we're coming out of an era of kind of technocratic, incremental change towards an era of real transformation. that's long overdue, frankly. Between climate change, global pandemics, unprecedented inequality, and new technologies, it's time that we really think intentionally about how we want to change our policy, our infrastructure, to adapt, and to really structure in equity and justice in a new way for this era. And that's going to take all of us. This is not a spectator sport. So my hope is that the the movement for Black Lives' call to action can really help us all own this project in a new way of combating structural racism, addressing anti black racism, but also seeing how it permeates so much of what we do, from our work on the care economy to our work on aging. It's all it's all in there.
Peter Kaldes 20:00
It is a tremendous energy and to those who are very cynical and don't want to see change, I suspect they're woefully disappointed right now. They thought it would be sort of a tick tock 30 second equivalent of a protest. And yet something very much larger than that is just moving Earth. Literally moving. Tectonic shifts in thinking are happening all around us.
I'm a sort of a history buff. And I I was curious to learn, in preparation for this interview with you, about the history of the domestic care worker, and who it was that started it. Could you share that story?
Ai-jen Poo 20:53
Well, the first domestic workers in this country were enslaved Black women. And the way that domestic work has been treated in our culture and policy is a direct reflection of the association of that role with Black women and women of color. In the 1930s, when our Congress was debating the New Deal labor law, another time when history moved faster, that period with widespread transformation, Southern members of Congress refused to support the labor laws if they included farm workers and domestic workers explicitly because they didn't want to support equal protections in our economy for Black workers. And so those laws moved forward with those exclusions and that has really defined the experience of domestic workers for generations.
Now, that's not to say that domestic workers didn't try to organize and address that and I think we're a part of that history and legacy. Starting all the way back from 1881 when there was the first documented strike of Black women, washer women in Atlanta, Georgia. They were successful in increasing their wages to the National Domestic Workers Union that Dorothy Bolden founded as part of the civil rights movement, but ended up organizing domestic workers throughout the south. To the Household Technicians of America who were key in changing some of the labor laws. To now the National Domestic Workers Alliance and what we're doing to try to bring these jobs into the future. There's a long history there both of injustice and exclusion, but also of resilience and, and progress.
Peter Kaldes 22:47
Bringing it to modern times. I'm wondering if you could share with us some concrete action, some concrete advocacy steps that perhaps ASA members could help with to move the needle forward on this issue?
Ai-jen Poo 23:01
Absolutely. So the ASA community is so important because I think we're so siloed in these different issue areas and different constituencies, but in the ASA context, we come together around values. And here, when it comes to domestic workers, there are older domestic workers who will never be able to afford to retire. I have so many members in their 70s and 80s, who can't afford to retire and have not had access to health care. And they're also caregivers, and they're supporting a growing aging population that will need more support to live independently. So all these issues are kind of connected.
For us to strengthen the care workforce, the first piece is in the immediate COVID context. We're really calling on people to support the Essential Workers Bill of Rights at the Federal level, which is a framework that includes care workers and domestic workers as essential workers that was developed by Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna. Some of the provisions made it into the Heroes Act, which passed in the House and is still waiting for the Senate to act on. Senate Republicans have not yet come to the table in a meaningful way on that. But we want to keep fighting, pushing for essential worker protections. And we want to keep pushing for inclusion and relief of all workers. A lot of people haven't been included.
And then in the medium term, we want to really look at how we invest in home- and community-based services in a way that strengthens the workforce. There are so many people who want to age in place, and we just don't have the homecare workforce that we need because the quality of jobs has been so poor that we lose our best caregivers to fast food and retail and other jobs. We've got to make these jobs, good jobs. It's good for everyone. And so making sure that the that we invest in our home- and community-based services. That there's a big public investment in our care infrastructure in a way that supports the workforce to have living wages, benefits and economic security. And part of that is also passing the Federal Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which was sponsored by Senator Harris and Congresswoman Jayapal and is getting increasing support.
So we're hopeful that the future will actually be better for domestic workers, but we'll need the help of the ASA community to realize that.
Peter Kaldes 25:49
Absolutely. And know that ASA, as part of its transformation and its business transformation, is going to be engaging much more in policy. Particularly those issues that extend beyond the important issues of Social Security and other traditional policy issues that seem to only be associated with, how do I put this... the ageist views of certain members of Congress when it comes to aging. As if it's just about decay and decline. We're looking hard at some socioeconomic policies that candidly affect the bottom line. If you create good jobs for everybody, whether they be young or older adults, everyone's better off. If you increase wages of caregivers, everyone's better off. So this isn't rocket science. But again, I think it goes back to our earlier conversation about empathy. And I know that the ASA membership is extraordinarily empathetic. And I think you'll see a lot more support for this legislation in the coming months. Hopefully, it passes sooner than that, of course, but you'll see much more support from the ASA membership.
I wanted to also talk about another issue that really touches on the sort of plight, if you will, of our direct care workers. And that's immigration. Obviously, so many of our workers are immigrants. They're critical to this community and this infrastructure. I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about what's going on?
Ai-jen Poo 27:24
This has been such a devastating time for immigrant families who have really been under attack for the last few years. And for the 11 million who are undocumented, to have no pathway to legalization and citizenship, despite making your home and your life here for so many years. And then to face increased enforcement, and really kind of a culture of enforcement that's been terroizing many, many communities. To the family separation that's been happening at the border where children have been taken from their parents and detained in inhumane conditions, even through the COVID crisis. We've been trying to get children released and with their families, because of all the deaths that have taken place in immigrant detention facilities. It's a humanitarian crisis. Nothing short of that.
And the truth is that we think about immigration in a box over here, but the direct care workforce, that's who we're talking about. The largest concentration of undocumented workers in any industry is in domestic care work. These are the women who we entrust with our children, our parents who raised us -- the most important people in our lives. They have families too. And they are a part of the lifeblood. They're a huge part of our care infrastructure in this country, and it's time that we invested in them. And so one of the things we've been developing is a vision for what we call a strong care force, which is immigrant inclusive. To really invest in immigrant care workers to put them on a path to citizenship through training to be a part of this workforce and a part of our solution to the care crisis in this country. And there are many solutions like that that are within reach, that are much more aligned with our values, much more empathetic than what has been the norm in the last few years. So yes, we'll need your help there as well.
Peter Kaldes 29:48
That's such an innovative idea in this space. I think this notion of leveraging the work that's already going on and putting these workers towards a path to citizenship is something that I suspect individuals from the Republican and Democratic parties could support. I mean, it's such a no brainer. But, to beat a dead horse, going back to what we were talking about, do you think immigration is is a policy issue that will be addressed in the short term? I mean, what's your outlook on that?
Ai-jen Poo 30:25
It needs to be. There's been so much damage done that goes to the core and the soul of who we are as a democracy. That damage needs to be repaired. And so I would hope that if there's change, coming out of this election, that this would be a priority. In my mind, it absolutely has to be. There's no other way. We have to begin to heal from the ways that we've been divided and harmed in this period.
Peter Kaldes 31:01
You talked about change, and this could be a change election. I'm wondering if you could share some of your thoughts on the blatant voter suppression tactics that are going on and how your members are seeing it and what sorts of efforts your organization may or may not be doing to support voter registration, support for mail in ballots and all of that.
Ai-jen Poo 31:25
We're doing a lot of voter education for sure. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. And so we are not doing any kind of explicit election work or any partisan activity at all. But there's a lot of confusion out there, a lot of misinformation and disinformation and, as you said, a lot of voter suppression. So we are doing our best to engage with women of color voters to really educate them on how to participate, how to know their rights and their voting rights, and how to stay safe in this process, and especially in the context of the pandemic. And really reminding people about what's at stake in elections. We just lost a great leader inJohn Lewis, and I think about him every day because of what his life meant and the many, many people like him who sacrificed for this democracy. And the reality that we haven't realized its full potential. That we as a multiracial democracy are still a work in progress. And that in order for us to get to where we need to be, and John Lewis's vision, and mine, that we're all going to have to participate and that everything that we're struggling with that might keep us from voting are things that are on the ballot. And so just to remind people of that
Peter Kaldes 33:04
I'm so glad to hear that you are engaging in voter education efforts. I think those are critically important when there is so much disinformation out there. ASA launched a new podcast called Leverage, which is focused on the politics of aging. And our first few episodes are dedicated to the Voting Rights Act. And it's dedicated to people understanding the history that so many of the older adults we serve actually lived through. And yet generation after generation sort of take for granted that one's right to vote is there and easily exercised, which is not the case. And so we are doing our part there, too.
Ai-jen, I know we'll probably be working together a number of issues moving forward, but this has been an amazing conversation. I want to ask you one final question that I ask all our guests and that is, why do you do this? Why are you committed to this career and equity and justice?
Ai-jen Poo 34:07
Because I believe in us. I really do. I really believe that in this country we are a caring majority. And that we have lots of obstacles to realizing the full power and potential of the caring majority in this country. And that our job is to remove those obstacles.
At Caring Across Generations, which is a campaign that we launched almost a decade ago, to bring together older adults, people with disabilities, family, caregivers, and the care workforce to really push together for the care economy that we deserve, we talk about this all the time. We're always at a table where it's always diverse, multiracial, multigenerational, and we start our meetings with an exchange where we turn to the person next sitting next to us and ask them to share a story about someone in their life who's taking care of them and the value of that relationship. And there's never been a room that I've been in where the room isn't buzzing with beautiful stories about care, and what it means to us.
I just think that there's so much that we share that is positive in experience and in perspective, and all that we don't share is part of what will make us dynamic. But it will require lots of movements, lots of organizations like ASA and ours. And and when we come together, we will be able to see the full expression of the caring majority in this country. And so I just keep plodding along, doing my little piece of that puzzle.
Peter Kaldes 35:55
You have a tremendous tremendous impact on the work we're doing together. And I gotta tell you, you're really helping us take the word shame out of caring. I really believe that. I think caregiving is is no longer the embarrassing, shameful thing that we do in off hours as a second, third, fourth job for so many of us. And I think the work that you're doing is so critical to making sure that everyone recognizes there's nothing to be ashamed of, but rather we need help. And we need a system to help us.
Ai-jen Poo 36:37
Exactly. Because we're all of us are both receiving and giving care. And that expresses itself in so many different ways. And I just love the idea of removing shame from it all, all together, because I do think that it should not only not be a source of shame, but it should be a source of pride. That we are comfortable with the reality of human interdependence. And that we believe in it.
Peter Kaldes 37:10
I just want thank you so much for joining us on Future Proof. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.
Ai-jen Poo 37:17
I did. It's so good to get time with you and to get to know you, and I'm so excited about ASA's next phase.
Peter Kaldes 37:25
Well, you're gonna be a big part of it. I'm warning you. So we're excited to be collaborating. And we'll start planning. As soon as we get some of these bills passed. I think it's so critical to our community. So thank you very much for joining. And thank you for this for joining us on this episode of Future Proof.
Ai-jen Poo 37:45
Thank you, Peter. Take care.