Guests: Charles Barron, New York City Council Member; Maureen Lane, co-director of Welfare Rights Initiative and Drum Major Institute Fellow; Ai-jen Poo, Lead Organizer, Domestic Workers United; Nancy Rankin, director of policy research, Community Service Society of New York
The following program was recorded at the studio of Democracy Now! on July 31, 2006.
Amy Goodman: Ai-jen Poo, can you talk about the landscape of domestic work in this city?
Ai-jen Poo: Domestic workers are workers who work in the private home as nannies, housekeepers, elderly caregivers, cooks, baby nurses, babysitters and we estimate that there are over 200,000 working in the greater metropolitan area.
Amy Goodman: How much do they make? How organized are these workers?
Ai-jen Poo: These workers are really isolated and scattered in private homes throughout the city and in the suburbs. The conditions they work in are very harsh. In fact, the workforce is incredibly vulnerable where the working conditions are entirely at the whim of the employer. So if you happen to have an employer who has a sense of decency and a respect for workers' rights, then you might have a worker who's earning a livable wage, but most people are not earning a living wage. Most of the industry is earning low wages and about 18 percent are earning below the poverty line.
Amy Goodman: What about healthcare?
Ai-jen Poo: Very few workers receive healthcare. In fact, we just completed a survey of domestic workers in New York and we found that only 10 percent of domestic workers receive any kind of healthcare.
Amy Goodman: In your report, "Home is Where the Work Is: Inside New York's Domestic Work Industry," you start off with a day in the life of someone called Carla, a live-out nanny. Tell us about her day.
Ai-jen Poo: Carla has to get up at the crack of dawn, take care of the needs of all of her own children who range from 5 years old to 11 years old, including preparing their breakfast, lunch, getting them ready for school, and then she has to get on a train to commute up to Westchester to a wealthy suburb where she then takes care of the kids of her employers, who work in the corporate sector. She works long hours, takes care of all their basic needs in addition to taking care of the home in Scarsdale, and then she gets back on a commuter rail and comes back to her home to make dinner for her kids and listen to them for about half an hour before they go to bed.
Amy Goodman: How important is organizing? Is there a union for domestic workers? What recourse do people who are so isolated have?
Ai-jen Poo: That is the problem; there are no standards, no recourse for workers in this industry, so they're completely vulnerable. The conditions are at the whim of the employer. What we've done is we've actually formed an organization called Domestic Workers United and we're organizing for power, to raise the level of respect for domestic workers and to establish fair labor standards in the domestic work industry. One of the main problems is that there's a long history of domestic workers being excluded from real recognition as a workforce, and denial of basic protections like the right to organize. In fact, domestic workers are one of only two workforces that have been excluded from the right to collectively bargain.
Amy Goodman: We're also joined by Maureen Lane from the Welfare Rights Initiative. She is also a public policy fellow of the Drum Major Institute. Can you talk about welfare in New York City and a living wage?
Maureen Lane: Yes, as a matter of fact, I'm particularly excited to be able to be asked to participate in this conversation and talk about welfare. Our focus is on access to education and training in the context of a living wage.
1.8 million New Yorkers live at or below the federal poverty line — that's one in five New Yorkers.
Download a free compilation guide to New York City Resources Guide (PDF) for advocates, policymakers, employers, labor leaders, social service providers and community stakeholders produced by the Community Service Society.
So often minimum wage does not include in any health benefits or any other benefits. One of the components of the campaign for a living wage in the recent Chicago ordinance is the fact that benefits need to be included. That's the case here in New York as well. It's not only the hourly wage, it's benefits and rightfully so, because most people receiving public assistance or low-wage workers are women with children, and they need benefits such as healthcare, childcare, etc. One of our particular concerns is that right now the discussion, especially around welfare, is not included in the larger discussion about poverty. And we think it needs to be because people receiving public assistance are excluded from access to education and training.
Amy Goodman: How?
Maureen Lane: The regulations that passed in 1996 gave certain flexibility to the states, but really the list of activities that people could participate in for the states to receive their federal funding were some sort of workfare; it didn't include much access to education and training, only about 12 months of vocational education.
Community Service Society
Workfare doesn't show anything like that, not in this city, not anywhere. So people on workfare are being restricted, and have only very limited access to education. Here in New York City, you have to do 35 hours of work per week on workfare. And none of those hours are educational.
Amy Goodman: So how can those people get the education they need?
Maureen Lane: People receiving public assistance qualify for financial aid because their incomes are so low. Here in New York their incomes are about 57 percent below poverty. But if you're a family of four in this city and you're making $30,000 dollars, your children probably won't qualify for TAP and Pell, two programs that help the poor access education.
Pell is a federal grant that is given to students; because it's a grant, you don't have to pay it back. Right now, the grant amount is about $4,050, and that's enough money if you're going to the City University of New York.
TAP, or Tuition Assistance Program, is a program started in New York State when the City University of New York (CUNY) became no longer a free college. New York State started TAP to make sure that poor students would be able to get access to education.
Amy Goodman: Maureen Lane, how important was education for you being a woman on welfare — do you have kids?
Maureen Lane: No, I don't. I was single and able-bodied, but I do work with students who have children for the most part. The day that Ai-jen described — for Carla, a domestic worker — is very much the same day that our students have, preparing their children to go to school and then having to do some combination of work and also go to school. In New York State, we were able to get a modest little welfare bill that expanded the definition of work activity for people receiving welfare to include work study and internship, so people do work study and internships, go to classes, go home and then study some more. That's not an extraordinary or unusual situation, so many people do it. What is extraordinary is that people receiving public assistance are being prevented from pushing through that ceiling.
Amy Goodman: Why is that?
Maureen Lane: In part, because public policy is not always informed by what we know works and what can work better from the voices of people who have first-hand experience and who have dealt with the issue.
Amy Goodman: Let me bring in Nancy Rankin who's with the Community Service Society. She has authored a few reports, among them, "Shortchanging Security," which is about security guards in New York. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Nancy Rankin: We recently finished a report on security guards in New York City. There are about 63,000 people employed in New York as security guards, and except for a few thousand who are unionized, the average pay of a security guard is about $10 an hour. Most of these security guards are men of color. Very few of them have any health insurance coverage and most of them don't have a single day of paid sick leave. So when you walk into these fancy buildings and you see someone in a smart uniform sitting behind a granite desk with a $50,000 abstract painting behind them and a $300 floral arrangement on the table, you're probably thinking that the security guard can buy his kid a Christmas present, or can at least take him to the doctor if he's sick, or take a day off if he himself is sick. But they can't.
Amy Goodman: How do ordinances like Living Wage affect them? Or do they affect them?
Nancy Rankin: The ordinances about Living Wage don't affect them because they don't fit into certain categories of working for a big-box employers, large retailers, or grocery stores; they don't have city contracts the way that healthcare workers or childcare workers do. Most of the city ordinances that are about Living Wage apply to only a limited, specific group of workers. And in fact, most low-wage workers are in fact working for small firms or employers, so they are not benefiting from these Living Wage ordinances. What could benefit them a great deal, as Ai-jen talked about earlier, would be unionization.
Amy Goodman: So when Community Service Society looks at the different service sectors in New York, what are your proposals? How do you increase people's standard of living?
Nancy Rankin: Some ways of increasing people's standard of living would go under the heading of raising the floor of earnings and benefits. There are a lot of ideas out there for raising benefits; some of them have to do with requiring certain employers to provide health insurance. But it really doesn't make sense to ask the employer to provide health insurance, when you look at the cost of health insurance relative to what a low-wage person is earning. And if somebody's only take-home pay is $300 or $400 a week, they can't pay much for their own health insurance. So I think ultimately to solve this problem, we're going to have to come up with a federal solution such as increasing Medicare or raising Medicaid coverage.
Amy Goodman: And the Living Wage initiative in New York, Maureen, how did it get passed and who does it apply to?
Maureen Lane: ACORN, the Working Families Party and the Brennan Center for Justice took the lead on that initiative, and through the work of those groups, as well as a lot of groups in a coalition, the Living Wage initiative passed in 2002. As Nancy mentioned, the initiative is specific to companies that have contracts with the city. It affects about 53,000 workers, and most of them are in healthcare and childcare industries. So it's pretty narrow.
I think it's important for us to think of Living Wage as part of a bigger discussion and that's why we're delighted to include access to education as part of it. As I mentioned before, if you're making $30,000 in New York City, your children may not qualify for grants for their education. So we need to take a look at that and not only put more money in the education grants, but also expand the level of who qualifies for these grants.
Number of U.S. counties in which a full-time minimum-wage earner can afford a one-bedroom apartment: 0
Amy Goodman: Nancy Rankin, who are the unheard third?
Nancy Rankin: The unheard third are the one out of three voting age citizens in New York that are living below twice the federal poverty level, and this is a huge group in New York City.
Amy Goodman: Ai-jen Poo, how do you organize at a policy level? You're talking about domestic workers, the most desperate, the most unheard voices in New York.
Ai-jen Poo: We have a proposal for a statewide bill of rights for domestic workers right now; it includes a living wage and basic benefits, and it also, for the first time in the history of the United States, recognizes domestic work as a real form of work, and recognizes the workforce as a real workforce that deserves rights, respect and recognition. That bill of rights is currently in the Labor Committee in the New York State Senate, and has recently been passed by the assembly Labor Committee and is in the Codes Committee. We're looking for some movement on that piece of legislation next year.
Amy Goodman: Domestic workers are people with the least amount of clout. How do they lobby for their rights?
Ai-jen Poo: We build a lot of coalitions with unions, churches, other organizations, and we have a large number of domestic workers who are organized and who are serious about winning this bill of rights. They have done a great deal to educate legislators about the importance of this work, its role in the economy and the conditions that workers are going through. So our lobbying is done it's through organizing, it's through direct action and it's through building alliances.
Amy Goodman: Are domestic workers afraid to speak up, and afraid of losing their jobs?
Ai-jen Poo: Domestic workers are afraid. There's a lot of fear because of the amount and degree of isolation, and the sheer lack of negotiating power that you have on the job. It's the only industry where there are twice as many workers as there are employers. In that situation the worker has very little power, and so there is fear, but then when all the domestic workers are all in the same room together, coming up with a plan and organizing together, that moment is also incredibly powerful, and we've been able to win legislation in the past. In fact, in 2003 we passed Local Law 33, compelling employment agencies in New York that place domestic workers to give workers and employers a code of conduct to make sure that the rights of workers were being respected.
I also want to add that the solution that people need to work in order to get out of poverty is an ironic one, because it seems so clear that everybody is working and working very hard. The problem is that that work isn't adequately compensated, valued or respected.
Amy Goodman: Where does immigration come into this story?
Ai-jen Poo: Immigration is happening all the time. New York, as a command center in the global economy, is attracting women and people who are being displaced from their home countries by some of the unfair trade policies that this country actually promotes and pushes all around the world. There are people all over the global south, in particular, who are faced with a situation where they have to migrate abroad in search of work. So they end up working in low-wage service sectors in places like New York to support their families, and they do represent a significant percentage of the workforce here. They do the work that supports the role that New York plays as the command center of the global economy. So it is an important issue and we fully support the efforts of immigrant organizations across the country to transform immigration policy in a way that provides real legalization, human rights and dignity for workers
Amy Goodman: Are people afraid of speaking up because some of them are paid off the books? For example, domestic workers?
Ai-jen Poo: Domestic workers have been excluded from real recognition as a workforce. Whether they're immigrant or not, a lot of workers are working off the books and that's primarily because employers don't want to pay taxes. But you'll find that many workers actually do want to be paid on the books, they want that recognition as a real worker and they want to be able to have some kind of benefits, such as Social Security. So I think that it's a longstanding question in terms of on the books/off the books, but what we feel is that regardless of whether or not the work is on the books or off the books, it is happening and it is hard work and it should be compensated, recognized and respected.
Amy Goodman: Nancy Rankin.
Nancy Rankin: Yes, just to echo what Ai-jen is saying, when we do our annual survey of low-income New Yorkers, what we find is the vast majority are working. In fact, the majority are working fulltime, and you would expect people who are working fulltime, whether it's in domestic work or other kinds of low-wage sectors, would at least be able to put a roof over their family's head and food on the table. We've found that this is not the case today in New York City.
A full-time, year-round worker being paid the minimum wage earns about $10,712 a year. This is $1,778 below the 2004 poverty line for a family of two, $4,958 below the 2004 poverty line for a family of three, and $8,138 below the poverty line for a family of four.
We're not talking about having luxuries. We're talking about having food and filling a prescription when their child is sick. The other thing is that of these fulltime working poor that we surveyed, half told us that they didn't have any health insurance. Sixty percent told us they didn't have a single day of paid sick leave. So it's no surprise to Ai-jen, I'm sure, that almost none of the workers that she's talking about have a single day of paid sick leave, yet the person she described had their own children. What if they're sick? It means that if she has to stay home and loses a day's pay, she's not going to be able to pay the rent that month.
Amy Goodman: And here you have domestic workers who are taking care of other people's sick children.
Ai-jen Poo: That's the irony in this situation: the cost of not having a living wage, the cost of the lack of respect and protection in the workplace, is borne by domestic workers' families. It really is the families of entire immigrant communities and communities of color in New York that are bearing the brunt of that.
Amy Goodman: What difference does the federal minimum wage make?
Nancy Rankin: The federal minimum wage, which hasn't been raised in a decade, is only $5.15 an hour. In New York, we've actually passed a higher minimum wage. The minimum wage in New York State is now $6.25 and it will go up to $7.15 in January. Of course, this is still a poverty wage, but at least it's a little bit better. The problem is when you have people who are these kinds of workers that we're talking about, workers in kitchens and restaurants, domestic workers who are isolated, they may not be aware of what the minimum wage is and they don't have the power to demand that they get the minimum wage because they're worried they could get fired.
Amy Goodman: We're going to turn right now to Charles Barron, New York City Council Member who is joining us on the phone. Welcome to this P.O.V podcast Charles Barron.
Charles Barron: Thank you so much and glad to be on with you.
Amy Goodman: As a city council member, what would you like to say about Living Wage in New York, and what are you doing to assure that a larger group of people have that basic ability to get by?
Charles Barron: First, we did pass a living wage bill in the city council a couple of years ago. Any business that does business with the City of New York will have to pay $10-$12 per hour as a living wage. In terms of the federal minimum wage increase, we have to be very careful of that right now, because it's been connected to an estate tax and also it's connected to the capital gains tax. So we have to make sure that we don't pass regressive taxation that's connected to the federal minimum wage increase.
In terms of minimum wage, prevailing wage and living wage, we have to raise these issues on the city, state and federal levels, so that working families can now deal with the high cost of living and have a decent wage. We have to demand living wages across the nation.
Nancy Rankin: Hi Councilman Barron. I'm Nancy Rankin of the Community Service Society, and I have a question for you. One of the things that we've talked about is how critical it is to have education if you hope to be able to earn any kind of a decent wage and hold a job today. And I was wondering what the city is prepared to do to address the devastating high dropout rates in our high schools? I mean you could argue we have this workforce development system, it's called the public high schools and the problem is barely half the kids are graduating from high school.
Charles Barron: I think one of the very first things we must do, and we must do it immediately, is to reverse mayoral control of the schools. I think it was a big mistake to wipe out school boards. We need to improve school boards but not take the local empowerment away from the people in our neighborhoods.
We have to look at the fact that the New York City school system is not prepared to prepare students to pass the Regents exams. A report by Mark Green, former public advocate, said that the New York City school system is not prepared to prepare students to pass the state Regents exams. So we should not be instituting tests that the school systems are not preparing people to pass. There's too much test-taking and No Child Left Behind which is really "leave no child untested." It uses tests as a way of setting some "standards," and in fact young people are being pushed out of schools. Right now there are young people that are receiving "certificates of completion," which are not diplomas, just a certificate saying that they attended a high school. Students can't go to college with this certificate, nor can they get a job. So these are some of the things we have to fight for in education.
Of course all of the typical stuff: smaller class size, a more culturally relevant curriculum, more qualified teachers, all of the things that most politicians talk about have to happen too, but the bottom line is the power question, who will control our schools and be in the decision-making position to deal with policy and capital questions about what schools will be built and so forth.
Amy Goodman: Maureen Lane of the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College is also with us, and she relied on education and training to get beyond welfare. You question for Council Member Barron?
Maureen Lane: Council Member Barron, we're talking about living wage in the context of talking about poverty and how people move economically from one level to another. One of the things that we have found at Welfare Rights Initiative is that heads of households receiving public assistance were virtually prevented from accessing higher education in the last few years. At CUNY alone, we lost about 20,000 of these people. What we're finding now is that the children of those heads of household are high school-, college-aged now. The vast majority of high schools in New York City are Title I, which means that we're talking about very impoverished communities. So a lot of the students that we're getting now in college are students who grew up on their mother's budget, who are coming from families receiving public assistance, and they're being misinformed, either by welfare caseworkers or by counselors in the high schools, and told that they can't go to college.
These are students who are getting ready to graduate high school, and I think we should never discourage anybody who's graduating from going on to college. There's some sort of miscommunication that if you're in a family receiving public assistance that you can't access education, and this is a policy that is skewed. I think we need to have clarification, and we would look to the city council and the government to make it clear. So I was wondering whether you have been a part of this poverty commission that the mayor has called upon to do? One of the things they've talked about is training people. So how are we going to actually get that done?
Charles Barron: I haven't been a part of the mayor's poverty commission because I think it's bogus. I think he's setting up a commission to make it look like it's going to have impact on poverty, when in fact he has the power right in his hands. He doesn't need a commission to eradicate poverty or make a real dent in poverty, because he has the control over a $53 billion budget that can invest money in our neighborhoods that create jobs. He can have a New York City infrastructure program where he rebuilds the roads and bridges and parks, particularly in our neighborhoods.
The mayor has an $11-$13 billion capital budget. If he wanted to, he could have easily invested that money in the inner cities. Instead, out of this budget $108 million is going to the Yankees, $105 million is going to the Mets, $106 million is going to the Nets, and billions more over the course of the next few years will be going to big-time developers. He was going to give a whole lot of money to the Jets and the Olympics. The mayor can eradicate or put a real dent in poverty without a commission. Once they start talking about commissions and jobs and training, it's bogus. Not that we don't need jobs, not that we don't need the training, but there are other ways.
The unemployment statistics don't give you the real picture. If you look at the numbers for East New York, the unemployment number will say 11-14 percent. But if you look at how many people that are employable, which, let's say, is about 60,000 in East New York, and then you subtract the number of people who are actually employed, which is 23,000 people, and then you subtract those counted as unemployed, which is about 7,000, you still get 30,000 people. That means that in East New York, there are another 30,000 people that are "not in the workforce." That's nearly 40-50 percent of the people who are not in the workforce, but who are eligible to do work. Those people are not in the unemployment statistics, which just means they're not getting benefits, and they're not being counted.
New York City, financial capital of the world, has the number one impoverished district in the world, the South Bronx. The poverty rate there is over 40 percent. The average or median income there is $19,000. This is a tale of two cities because if you look in Carolyn Maloney's district, which is Manhattan's East Side, and parts of Queens, the median income is $72,000 and the poverty rate is 12 percent. So you see that in one community, poverty is at 12 percent, and in another community nearby, the poverty is at over 40 percent; in one community, the median wage $72,000, in the other community, the median wage is $19,000.
Amy Goodman: Ai-jen Poo, let me ask you, representing domestic workers, how it plays out when you have this sector of society here in New York from the poorest areas servicing the most powerful, the wealthiest areas?
Ai-jen Poo: There is an increasingly polarized way in which the economy is developing, so that you have the wealthier managers of the global economy who work in the finance sectors, advertising, media, who rely increasingly on a growing work force of mostly people of color, women of color who are providing support services for them, whether it's domestic work or restaurant work. The conditions of these workers are actually worsening. They're earning lower and lower wages, they're facing increased threats, whether it's changes in the immigration law which threaten to criminalize them, or other additional pressures that happen as a result of being low-wage workers, where they're facing gentrification and displacement in their neighborhoods, downgraded educational programs, shutting out from higher education, environmental injustices in their neighborhoods. So, increasingly the pressure is on them, and it's only getting worse as the city continues to develop.
Amy Goodman: I wanted to just end with where you find hope, what do you think are the most important ways to bring people out of poverty? Let's start with Nancy Rankin.
Nancy Rankin: I think there's an enormous number of things that we can do. There are some easy things that we can do in New York City right now. We could make City University of New York, for example, tuition-free for all children from low-income families. Another thing we could do is have a rebate check for low-income renters. We provide a $400 tax break for the homeowners for their property taxes. Well, in New York the higher income people are owners and co-op owners and homeowners, the low-income people are renters, and they pay the property tax, too, that gets passed through to them. But they get an empty mailbox instead of a $400 rebate check. So why shouldn't we have a $400 rebate check for low-income renters? We could extend the Earned Income Tax Credit — the EITC. We have 700,000 or 800,000 people who are eligible for food stamps in New York City who aren't getting food stamps. Receiving food stamps would immediately help them.
So there are a lot of short-term things we could do, but then I think we also need to think bigger. For example, the social security tax is the most regressive tax we have. Why shouldn't we make the first $10,000 or $15,000 of earned income exempt from social security tax and just shift it up so that it phases out higher in the income scale? That would create an enormous incentive for people to work on the books, and then to be eligible for a lot of other kinds of benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which they're not eligible for now because they're not working on the books.
So I think we need to both think immediately and then to think bigger at the federal level.
Amy Goodman: Maureen Lane. Where do you find the hope?
Maureen Lane: I find the hope every day with the students I work with. We find consistently and eternally that time spent getting education and training is very cost effective as a public investment in human capital. In addition, it is a foundation for expanding the economy. In the long term, the more people have access to education, including people receiving public assistance, the more families become self-determined. And those families being involved in the policy decisions and discussions in the future will have an enormous impact.
Right now the way that we make policy in this country is skewed by the frame that we've used for so long. It's a frame that sees people, especially poor people, a certain way. I agree with Ms. Poo, none of the students that I work with would say that working harder is the answer for poor people because they already work so hard, and I doubt it would be said by any of the workers that Ai-jen works with.
Amy Goodman: Ai-jen Poo, what kind of progress have you seen when it comes to organizing domestic workers?
Ai-jen Poo: We've seen progress and it's taught us some important lessons about where you do find the hope and what change is needed. We need much more organization at a grass roots level to build a broad-based mass movement across communities, across sectors, in the interests of poor and working people. Then and only then will we be able to put into place policies that really are about the interests of our families, of our communities, about respecting work, about human rights indignities.
One proposal in New York is the proposal about a Bill of Rights for domestic workers, which is generations overdue, and we need many, many more proposals that will protect the basic rights and dignity of working people.
Amy Goodman: Charles Barron, might that pass?
Charles Barron: Yes, I think we can pass that. We have a pretty progressive city council compared to other places around the country.
There are a lot of things, including Earned Income Tax Credit, progressive taxation, Commuter tax, Stock Transfer tax, and different kinds of taxation where we can raise revenue. But I think that the greatest opportunity we have is the fact that in 2009 a whole new administration of the city is coming in. The mayor has to go, the borough presidents have to go except for one, the comptroller has to go, the public advocate has to go, and 34 members of the city council have to go. To me, it's the question of power. The working class families, the poor, people of color, and the progressive community, we're the new majority in New York City and we have to begin to elect legislators who are going to be in power positions. The city council determines land use issues, budget issues, and it's the council that passes the budget, not the mayor. The council also determines what laws are being made, and oversee all city agencies. The problem is too many of us are connected, tied in, controlled by the speaker, by the mayor or by county leaders.
The progressive community has to look at electoral politics and we need to look at a whole slate of people that we need to run for these offices in 2009 so that when we want to raise all these issues and solutions that you're coming up with, and you have to go to the city council, then we have comrades in these powerful positions.
Amy Goodman: I want to thank you all for being with us. Council Member Charles Barron, New York City; Ai-jen Poo, lead organizer with Domestic Workers United; Nancy Rankin of the Community Service Society and Maureen Lane of the Drum Major Institute.
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