Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), took the occasion of the 21st Annual Sheinberg Lecture to call for better wages and benefits for an often-ignored section of our workforce—home care workers.

According to Poo, author of the recently published The Age of Dignity and a 2014 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant recipient, 90 percent of Americans would prefer aging at home to aging in a nursing home. Her grandparents’ disparate experiences illustrate why. Lacking adequate homecare options, her paternal grandfather was placed in a nursing home against his wishes. “I visited him there, and even now, my memory of that first visit still gives me the shivers,” Poo said, recalling the depressing atmosphere. He passed away after three months. Meanwhile, her 89-year-old maternal grandmother is able to live at home and maintain an active lifestyle. “What made the difference?” Poo said. Her answer: the support of a home care worker.

Population trends suggest that aging at home will not be an option for most Americans. In 1970, ten percent of Americans were over 65, but as the baby boom generation ages, and thanks to life-extending medical advances, 20 percent of the population will be over 65 by 2030. “By 2050, 27 million of us will need some form of care or assistance just to meet our basic daily needs,” Poo said. “For most, elder care will mean something like what my grandfather experienced, unless we do something very, very different.”

The Caring Across Generations campaign, which Poo helped found in 2011, aims to make home care a real possibility by, in part, protecting the work of caregivers. Long excluded from federal minimum wage and overtime protections, their skilled work written off as “companionship,” home care workers earn less than nine dollars per hour. Thirty percent rely on public assistance for food security. “We can stay on this same dark path of unsustainable working conditions and wages which reinforces an unsustainable overdependence on nursing homes that no one wants to live in,” Poo said, “or we can seize upon this moment of demographic change...to create a whole new system to care for our families and care for the workers, too.”

On January 1 of this year, the Department of Labor’s Home Care Final Rule was set to bring 1.8 million home care workers under those federal protections “for the first time in 75 years,” Poo said. Home care industry groups, however, filed suit. By January 14, a DC Circuit Judge had ruled in their favor and vacated the Final Rule. The DOL is appealing, while Poo’s campaign is working with organizations at the state-level to build a “climate of inevitability for this change.”

“These basic changes, so minimal and so far from what we actually need, are under severe threat and attack,” she said, describing a broader political landscape in which conservative resistance opposes progressive change at every turn.

Yet despite these setbacks, Poo sees hope as more and more Americans come to identify with these caregivers. “Domestic workers used to be considered a shadow, marginal workforce. Today the conditions that are associated with domestic work are increasingly defining of the whole of the American workforce,” she said. The widespread “experience [of] being locked out of real opportunity” in today’s economy might in fact unite Americans in this multigenerational cause.

Watch Ai-jen Poo deliver the Sheinberg Lecture (1 hr, 33 min):

Posted April 16, 2015