Private Households: Employing the Nation’s Invisible Workforce

by Lynn Wallis

October 14, 2020

There are over 2.5 million domestic workers in private households across the United States and an average of 13,821 in Oregon during 2019. The National Domestic Workers Alliance estimates that by 2026, home care jobs will make up one of the fastest growing professions in the country due mainly to the rapidly growing aging population.

The private household industry employs workers on or about the household premises in activities primarily concerned with the operation of the household. Private households may employ workers often referred to as domestic workers such as cooks, maids, butlers, gardeners, personal caretakers, and other maintenance workers. Domestic workers can perform a variety of household services from providing care for children and elderly dependents, to housekeeping, cooking, laundry, grounds keeping, shopping for food, and carrying out household errands.

Demand and Supply

The cycle of demand for domestic workers shows no sign of fading away. A major factor on the demand side is the fact that more women are taking on full-time jobs and a dually employed household with children places a heavy burden on parents to keep up their household. Household help is a lifesaver for many families. Caregivers who look after young children, aging parents, pets, or homes can reduce a lot of stress. Demand for in-home workers is also growing due to the growth of the aging population, 65 years and older. This segment of the population is expected to make up 19 percent of the total U.S. population by 2030.

On the supply side, the private household workforce has become largely filled by workers who immigrate to wealthier nations to find work. According to The Economic Policy Institute, the vast majority of domestic workers are women and just over one-half (52.4%) are Black, Hispanic, or Asian American/Pacific Islander women. Moreover, over one-third (35.1%) of domestic workers were born outside the United States.

According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, both U.S. born and immigrant domestic workers work in an array of circumstances. A few staff the homes of the wealthy but many more work in homes of busy, middle-class professionals who have sufficient income and wealth to hire help to do the chores that would otherwise consume their limited time. Still other domestic workers assist people of modest means, stopping in once every other week to clean the house, help an elderly person with laundry and meals, pick up kids from school, or attend to the needs of a person with a disability.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the national employment in private households is expected to decline slightly from 820,800 workers in 2019 to 792,400 workers in 2029 – a decrease of 3.5 percent. In Oregon, the number of domestic workers increased more than five times from 2,581 in 2001 to 13,821 in 2019. The number of private households that employed domestic workers grew by nearly seven times from 2,138 in 2001 to 14,612 in 2019. The average employee per household in Oregon has been declining slightly from a high of 1.4 in 2004 to its current level of 0.9. Employment in private households in Oregon is projected to grow by 1,200 jobs or by 9 percent from 2019 to 2029.
Occupations and Wages

Domestic work is often very personal in nature. A nanny or childcare worker is entrusted with the care and well-being of the employers’ family member and the caretaker for an elderly or disabled person often functions as a companion, providing conversation and emotional support, as well as help with dressing and bathing.

The second graph shows that the majority of workers in private households during 2019 were personal care and health care support and services workers (47%), and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance workers (48%).

The majority (94.5%) of building and grounds cleaning workers were maids and housekeeping cleaners. Childcare workers made up the largest amount of jobs in the personal care and service occupations at 18.1 percent. Home health, personal care aides, and nursing assistants made up the largest portion of jobs in healthcare support occupations at 23.8 percent.
Domestic work has historically been a low paying job, with an average median hourly wage of $12.01 in the U.S., according to the Economic Policy Institute. This median wage for domestic workers is 39.8 percent less than typical non-domestic workers make who are paid $19.97. In Oregon, average weekly wages in private households have been gradually rising in the last 18 years — ranging from $267 to $393 in current dollars (not adjusted for inflation). However, when the current wage is adjusted for inflation, the real weekly wage barely increased from $386 in 2001 to $393 in 2019 or by 1.8 percent. It is estimated that a larger share of in-home workers work part-time so these weekly wage estimates do not always reflect a 40-hour workweek.

According to the report from the Economic Policy Institute’s, Domestic Workers Chart Book, in-home workers are more than 90 percent female and disproportionately immigrants. The report shows that in Oregon, 89.9 percent of in-home workers were female and 15.8 were immigrants in 2019. By ethnicity, many were white, non-Hispanic (76.3%), followed by Hispanic (13.4%), black (3.4%), Asian (4.5%), and other races (2.4%). In terms of education level, a little less than half of in-home workers had a high school diploma or less (48.2%), over one-third had some college (38.1%), and a few had bachelor’s degrees or more education (13.7%). The median age for in-home workers was reported at 41 years, which was the same as the median age for all other workers.

Litigation Pertaining to Domestic Worker Rights

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was enacted in 1938 to provide minimum wage and overtime protections for workers, to prevent unfair competition among businesses based on subminimum wages, and to require employers whose employees work excessive hours to compensate them at one-and-one-half times the regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 hours. The FLSA did not initially protect workers employed directly by households so Congress extended FLSA coverage to domestic service workers in 1974. These expanded protections exempted certain domestic service workers from minimum wage, overtime provisions, and the overtime pay requirement for live-in domestic service workers. On January 1, 2015, the United States Department of Labor revised its regulations defining companionship services so that many direct care workers, such as certified nursing assistants, home health aides, personal care aides, and other caregivers are protected by the FLSA revision.

According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, domestic workers are still excluded from the following worker protections afforded to other workers:

  • Domestic workers are barred from forming unions or bargaining collectively due to the National Labor Relations Act.
  • Live-in domestic workers are excluded from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • Domestic workers are excluded from Occupational Safety and Health Act Protections although they routinely work with toxic products.
  • Federal anti-discrimination laws, including the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, generally cover employers with multiple employees, which is not the case for most private households.
Presently, nine states and two municipalities have passed their own versions of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights pertaining to employers and household employees in those states. This legislation includes policies that address issues such as overtime, mandated rest and meal breaks, and vacation time. Oregon’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights was signed into law in June 2015. The state’s legislation gave domestic workers extended provisions for overtime pay, rest periods, paid personal time off, and protections against sexual harassment and retaliation. The new law took effect on January 1, 2016 that directs the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries to adopt rules to implement it.

On July 15, 2019, Senator Kamala Harris and Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act. This legislation is a comprehensive, 158-page bill guarantees common workplace rights and protections to domestic workers, creates new policies to address the unique challenges of the labor they perform, and includes strong implementation and enforcement policies. Among many safeguards, the ‘Bill of Rights’ would close legal loopholes excluding domestic workers from certain federal labor and civil rights laws. It would also create meal and rest breaks, and establish fair scheduling practices, as well as strengthening support networks for domestic workers who are survivors of workplace sexual harassment and assault. Additional information on this bill can be found at Domestic Workers Bill: A Model for Tomorrow’s Workforce.

COVID and Beyond

Since the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the nation’s domestic workers have been placed in a precarious position. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Working Economics Blog dated April 8, 2020, many domestic workers are experiencing a significant decrease in work. The National Domestic Workers Alliance survey found that over half (52%) of domestic workers surveyed said they had no job for the week beginning March 30 and in the following week, the percentage reporting loss of work increased to 68 percent. The decline in employment for these low-income domestic workers is a significant loss of income for these workers and their families. For workers who are currently still employed, it is important that these front line workers who care for the sick, disabled, and elderly population have access to the proper protective equipment they need to remain healthy.

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