With the help of a Portuguese-English dictionary, Natalicia Tracy — who worked full-time as a nanny, cook and housekeeper for a Brazilian family that paid her $25 a week — taught herself to read and write in English. Just 17 at the time, Tracy had left her native Sao Paulo after the family had promised her she could finish her schooling once they reached Boston. Instead, they kept her passport and made her sleep in a screened-in porch, closely monitoring what she ate lest it cost them too much.
“To be honest, I did not mind the work, I minded the treatment,” Tracy, 45, told Mic in a phone interview. “I always felt that I was not a human being in that space. I did not know any of the laws here, when I came here I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have any friends, I was pretty isolated.”
The daily newspaper showed Tracy her way out. Through the want ads in the paper, Tracy reached a different family who was amazed that all she asked for was a room of her own, food and time off to go to school. Now a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and the executive director of the Brazilian Worker Center, she organizes domestic workers to fight against the exploitation she herself endured.
“The work that I do now, a lot of it has a lot to do with my own trauma that I never dealt with fully,” Tracy said. “I want to use my own experience to help other women find their voice and understand that they have power and they can restore their strength and dignity through having a voice to speak against injustices.”
The experiences of women like Tracy and other domestic workers are featured in the new documentary series Careforce One Travelogues, premiering March 17 at the Brooklyn Museum and then available on YouTube through PBS. Filmmaker Marisa Morán Jahn packed up her 40-year-old station wagon to travel around speaking to domestic workers as a way to highlight blue-collar women, a section of the working class that has often been left out of our national conversation.
“The series that we crafted is really intended to introduce the caretaker issue — like women’s work, race, class and so forth and drawing new connections,” Jahn told Mic in a phone interview. “If you haven’t thought about the issue, it’s totally invisible and under the radar.”
Labor laws in the U.S., the strongest of which were passed during the Great Depression, reflected the politics of the time and did not include domestic workers, Jahn said.
“They intentionally excluded domestic workers because they were largely African-American,” Jahn said of the labor laws passed in the 1930s and ’40s by the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. “Southern lawmakers used it as a point of contention and that racial bias and class bias persists today.”
As domestic work becomes one of the fastest growing job markets in the country, with the amount of caregiving jobs doubling between 2004 and 2014, the disparity in income and rights has become more explicit. Discussing the American working class without addressing the built-in inequality faced by the largely female and minority workforce misses a large part of the economic story of the United States.
Eighty-nine percent of those home health workers are women, with minorities making up more than half of the workforce, according to a 2014 study. Even though it’s a growing field, low wages for in-home workers — which include not just caretakers (who generally care for the elderly and people with disabilities) but also housekeepers and nannies — mean that many rely on public assistance, Carmela Huang, an attorney who represents domestic workers in New York City, said in an interview.
New York state passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010 guaranteeing a minimum wage and overtime pay. In the years since, seven other states, including Massachusetts, where Tracy led the charge, have adopted their own set of rules.
“Domestic work is work and that means treating it like a profession,” Huang said. “That means workers having more confidence in their skills and employers looking at it as workers. They need to approach it with the same respect that they expect in their own work.”
Although having an unambiguous set of standards has raised the visibility of domestic labor, Huang said enforcement remains a problem, particularly if a vulnerable employee who might be undocumented or not speak English fears exercising their rights.
Currently, activists in the state are fighting for home attendants to have all hours paid. Often, caregivers work 24-hour shifts and even work them back-to-back. Despite the hours worked, the so-called “13-hour rule” means that’s the maximum number of hours they can be paid for. Although a New York State court panel ruled in September 2017 that not paying home health workers for their entire shift was illegal, a subsequent emergency regulation from the state’s Department of Labor said that workers need not be paid for when they are sleeping or eating.
“What’s going on with home health workers in New York puts it clear that when there’s money on the table the right result is not likely,” Huang said of the fight for people to be paid all hours worked, which she said would cost the industry millions of dollars in back pay. “It creates a permanent underclass of people who will always be paid for half of that.”
The very nature of domestic work, which takes place in private spaces, makes oversight difficult and organizing more of a challenge.
“People have this idea that when you disappear — and I like to call it disappear because we are invisible workers — when you disappear behind closed doors for 16 hours, people have this idea that you go in and clean old people’s ass,” June Barrett, a caregiver for the past 14 years who is now an activist with the Miami Workers Center and who is also featured in the series, said.
“When we get there we have the biggest responsibility of our lives, we have elderly people caring for which means their lives are in our hands,” Barrett said.
Barrett, who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica, said she experienced both racial and sexual harassment on the job. These included being called a “nigger” by a client and being groped by another one.
Florida does not yet have a domestic workers’ bill of rights, but Barrett hopes the growing movement, which is now allied with #MeToo and Time’s Up, will lead to a federal policy. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has issued a call to action to support farmworkers and domestic workers who face sexual assault and harassment and facilitated a meeting between actresses and domestic workers in New York City earlier in March. Barrett, who is a volunteer, attended and spoke about issues of sexual harassment and wages with actresses like America Ferrera and Sarah Jessica Parker.
“When we walked in, one of the A-listers walked over and introduced herself and said, ‘I want to work with domestic workers,’” Barrett said. “I stepped into new power with these women, I will continue to use this power. I believe we should tell our stories. There’s power in telling stories to create change.”