About a year into the pandemic, at an emotional low, I entered the hours I spent caring for my family and our home into the online Invisible Labor Calculator to see how much my work might be worth. It was created by the journalist Amy Westervelt, who used Bureau of Labor Statistics data to assign an hourly wage to different tasks—cleaning, considering the emotional needs of family members, doing yard work, cooking, etc. I was floored when the calculator told me that my annual wage should be more than $300,000, which would make being a domestic worker the highest-paying job I’ve ever had. By far.
According to Oxfam, if women around the world made minimum wage for all the unpaid hours of care work they performed in 2019, they would have earned $10.8 trillion. In America alone, they would have earned $1.5 trillion, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
Even care work that is paid is hardly ever paid enough. For many domestic workers, providing quality care means forging intimate, familial relationships and acquiring professional knowledge that is sensual and personal.
This article was adapted from Angela Garbes’s new book Essential Labor
This expertise lives in the bodies of women of color throughout America. Ninety-two percent of domestic workers are women, and 57 percent of them are Black, Hispanic, Asian American, or Pacific Islander. We entrust the safety and cleanliness of our homes to Latin American workers, who make up 62 percent of house cleaners. Whether they maintain our house, care for our elders, or watch our children, there is a wide and long-standing gap between the wages of domestic workers and all other workers in America. Whereas the median wage for workers in this country is nearly $20 an hour, it is barely $12 for domestic workers. The gap is widest for nannies—97 percent of whom are women—who earn a median of just $11.60 an hour. And although the cost of living has steadily risen, domestic workers’ wages have remained mostly stagnant for decades.
“White class-privileged women in the United States have historically freed themselves of reproductive labor by purchasing the low-wage services of women of color,” Rhacel Salazar Parreñas writes in her study of Filipina immigration and international reproductive labor.