Private Households: Employing the Nation’s Invisible Workforce

by Lynn Wallis

November 8, 2017

Nearly 9,000 Oregon workers are employed in private households. 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 the 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. The Current Population Survey estimates that 46 percent of the private household workforce in the U.S. is foreign-born.

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.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, national employment in private households is expected to grow from 820,700 workers in 2014 to 839,900 workers in 2024 – growth of 2.3 percent. In Oregon, the number of domestic workers nearly quadrupled from 2,802 in 2001 to 13,966 in 2016. The number of private households that employed domestic workers grew by 477 percent from 2,118 in 2001 to 12,218 in 2016. The average employee per household in Oregon has been declining slightly from a high of 1.4 in 2003 to its current level of 1.1.

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 U.S. workers in private households during 2014 fell into two broad occupational categories: building and grounds cleaning and maintenance (45%) and personal care and service occupations (49%).
The majority (97%) of building and grounds cleaning workers were maids and housekeeping cleaners. The remaining occupations were made up of grounds maintenance workers (0.9%) and all other occupations (1.7%). Childcare workers and personal care aides made up the majority of jobs in the personal care and service occupations at 64 and 35 percent, respectively.

Domestic work has historically been a low pay job, with 70 percent of workers earning less than $13 per hour according to a survey conducted in 2012 by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The report, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work, presents the results of the first large-scale, national survey of domestic workers in the United States which surveyed 2,086 nannies, caregivers, and housecleaners in 14 metropolitan areas. The data showed that 23 percent of workers were paid below the state minimum wage and 67 percent of live-in workers were paid below the state minimum wage, with a median hourly wage of $6.15.

In Oregon, average weekly wages in private households have not changed much since 2001 – ranging from $228 to $292 in current dollars (not adjusted for inflation). When the current wage is adjusted for inflation, the real weekly wage actually declined from $355 in 2001 to $292 in 2016 or by 17.7 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 work week.  

According to the report from the Economic Policy Institute, Low Wages and Scant Benefits Leave Many In-Home Workers Unable to Make Ends Meet, in-home workers are more than 90 percent female and disproportionately immigrants. The report estimates that one out of every nine foreign-born female workers with a high school degree or less works in an in-home occupation.

The report shows that in Oregon, 92.6 percent of in-home workers were female and 12.6 were immigrants in 2012. By ethnicity, many were white, non-Hispanic (81.9%), followed by Hispanic (9.6%), black (2.4%), Asian (2.1%), and other races (3.9%). In terms of education level, half of in-home workers had a high school diploma or less (50.3%), many more had some college (38.4%), and a few had bachelor’s degrees or more education (11.2%). The median age for in-home workers was reported at 38 years which was close to the median age of 40 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, five states (California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon) 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 and directs the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries to adopt rules to implement it.

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