February is Black History Month and there’s no better time to examine the racist history that to this day casts a shadow over homecare and personal support work.
For as long as there has been care work, the majority of it has fallen to women. In the United States, it’s largely fallen to women of color and immigrants. The percent of Black women in the homecare workforce in Oregon is twice what it is in the overall workforce.
Our diversity makes us strong and vibrant. But throughout American history we have been ignored, under invested in, and under supported by people in power.
In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor standards for (some of) the American workforce. But the law left out farm workers and domestic workers (care providers), two jobs that were predominantly held by people of color, specifically Black people in southern states. The congressional delegation from those southern states fought to exclude our jobs from the new law, and they won. As a result, homecare workers earned poverty-level wages for the next 80 years. In Oregon, homecare workers earned as little as $2.30 per hour in 1999 before we formed a union.
This inequality persisted until 2015 when the Department of Labor under President Obama finally corrected it. That was only 5 years ago.
Wages are just part of the story. The other side is investment. States and the federal government have invested heavily in jobs that are traditionally male and white. The building trades, for example, receive subsidies. They have prevailing wage laws. They have unions. There has been significant investment in support systems that help this workforce succeed. (And that’s a very good thing.) But these systems simply don’t exist for homecare – or if they do, it’s because workers fought for them. Nothing has been done for us.
Here in Oregon, we’ve come a long way. We’ve won our right to be in union. We’ve raised wages to $15 per hour. We’ve won access to benefits. We have training standards. And later this year we’re bringing online a new retirement benefit – the first of its kind. In every case, we have pushed and pushed and pushed against a system that does not want to invest in our labor. Without the leadership of members in our Union, none of this would exist. It didn’t as recently as 20 years ago. And we still have a long way to go just to catch up to where traditionally male, white jobs are at.
It’s no wonder that the second Black-founded union in America was a homecare worker union. When we stick together, we make change happen.
Throughout American history unions have helped address racial wage gaps by winning contracts that treat people fairly. As Oregon becomes more diverse and the demand for long-term care rises, Unions must play a role in addressing the structural racism that has held this industry back.
Together – along with consumers, advocates, community partners, and elected leaders – we can build a care economy that does right by its workers and meets the needs of seniors, children, and people with disabilities.
It’s up to us to make it happen. We are the leaders we have been looking for.