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MacArthur 'Genius' Ai-jen Poo: Organizing America's Domestic Workers

Ai-Jen Poo, the director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, was one of 21 "geniuses" awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship today.
Image: Ai-jen Poo
Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigrant women and immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 18, 2013. AP fie

Behind the doors of any given American home there may be someone inside paid to take care of children, an aging grandparent or a sick relative.

Domestic workers are among the least-protected members of the workforce, excluded from state and federal labor laws. For the last 16 years, labor organizer Ai-jen Poo, now the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been organizing housekeepers, nannies and home health aides to expand workplace protections. Today, Poo became a 2014 MacArthur "genius.”

The $625,000 fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation is awarded over five years to support ongoing work. NBC's "In Plain Sight" caught up with Ai-jen Poo over the phone.

Why do you organize domestic workers? What are you trying to win and what are the central problems that the members of your organization face in their work?

Domestic work is the Wild West: You never know what you’re going to get and it runs the spectrum. Some people work for wonderful families who they stay in contact with for many generations. On the other end there’s human smuggling and modern slavery-like conditions. And there’s nothing there to protect these workers—no guidelines, no clear workplace standards, which means that even employers that want to do the right thing for their employees don’t always know what that is.

Domestic workers understand the vulnerability of their work. They understand that sometimes asking for a raise or the morning off for a mammogram means you’re risking losing your job. They are working for low wages and need to put food on the table for their own families. Out of these conditions, and out of pride for their work, they started coming together in church basements and in community spaces 20 years ago. That’s now become a national movement.

When you started organizing domestic workers in 1998 nobody really talked about domestic work in public policy or labor organizing circles. Now domestic workers have become a big part of a conversation about worker rights and inequality. What do you think this tells us about organizing and about changing conditions for workers?

In the late '90s when we started this work they were seen as marginal and shadow workforce. But today when we look around, homecare workers are the fastest growing part of the economy. And what we can see is that the conditions that homecare workers face, they are the conditions that now define the American experience of work. Things like vulnerability, lack of job stability, lack of pathways to upward mobility, low wages and long hours; more and more of our workforce is struggling with these conditions.

Sometimes when we look at our society we can tell the most about where we’re heading and the most about which strategies will work to shape the future by looking at the parts of society that are least visible and least recognized. What we find in these parts of society is that they are often ahead of their time.

What needs to happen for domestic workers, to bring domestic work to a place where it’s sustainable? What are the solutions?

If there were not people making sure children are safe and taking care of elders, it would be hard for the rest of economy to function. But while it is essential work, it has not been adequately valued or compensated.

We’re at a moment when women who were previously supposed to do that work unpaid as part of the family are part of the workforce. And we’re about to have the largest older population we’ve ever had. The need for family care is exploding.

There’s this new phenomenon of the sandwich generation who are struggling to manage child care and elder care needs on both ends. But at the same time, the workers doing the care work are struggling, earning poverty wages to support their own families. We have a scenario where our families can’t support our loved ones and the people we count on to take care of our families can’t take care of their own, which is fundamentally unsustainable.

There are solutions to make sure these are good jobs that you can take pride in and support families on. We’ve passed domestic worker protections in four states since 2010—New York, California, Hawaii and Massachusetts. And we’re building solutions that make clear how we’re all interconnected.

What will you do with the “Genius Grant”?

The plan is to create a fellowship for caregivers and domestic workers to be able to work for the National Domestic Workers Alliance as national public policy fellows to really get them to learn the workings of policy so that they can better impact the broad set of policies that affect their lives. They’re already been doing that work to win expanded rights for domestic workers. We’re going to build that up to develop policy expertise.