March 2, 2018

Innovative approaches strive to make work better for domestic workers in the U.S.

Written by the Stability Innovation Atlas team

The Stability Innovation Atlas team, led by FHI 360 and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, will release their finished product in Spring 2018. The complete Atlas will feature economic stability-enhancing innovations that empower the world’s poor and vulnerable people in managing and investing with confidence in their future. We will be profiling several innovators and innovations that were identified during the research and crowd-sourcing process over the coming weeks and months.

Palak Shah

Palak Shah | Photo: Adam Lerner, courtesy of Palak Shah

Domestic work is among the fastest growing jobs in the United States, yet cleaners, caregivers and nannies are still close to the bottom of the income scale and remain among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the country. Left unprotected by the foundational labor laws passed in the U.S. nearly a century ago, domestic workers, who are overwhelmingly female, now comprise what Palak Shah calls “an ignored and forgotten workforce.”

Palak, whose entire work career, “has been about taking a bite out of really hard problems and trying to solve them,” is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the leading voice for domestic workers in the country. Palak is also the social innovations director of NDWA’s recently founded innovation hub, Fair Care Labs, where she, along with social entrepreneur Sam Witherbee, created Alia, a tech-driven platform to provide benefits and lift standards for domestic workers. Alia collects payments of $5 per cleaning from employers and aggregates these micro-contributions into a scheme to provide cleaners with an a la carte menu of benefits or insurance products or to have the money applied to pay for sick days. “We’re at least trying to figure out how to extend the kinds of things that we all take for granted in the ‘regular jobs’ and extend them to the domestic workforce,” Palak says.

The need for services like Alia is only growing. Segments of the domestic workforce are growing at five times the rate of the national job growth, with childcare and homecare jobs expected to be the single largest occupation in the country by 2030, Palak explains. Demand is being driven in large part by demographic changes, as the aging baby-boomer generation, loath to spend their golden years in nursing homes, increasingly prefer to be cared for at home. But caring for the elderly and children and cleaning the home, however intimate and vital to the functioning of families and households, remains informal and is not highly regarded by the general public. “It’s an uphill battle around even viewing this work, just like any other job that deserves rights and protections and benefits, as real work.”

Complicating matters further, a growing number of the families that employ domestic workers face their own economic pressures, unable to make a living wage. For them, contributing an extra few bucks to their cleaners’ benefit fund is out of the question. “So we are forced to be super-creative of how we address these challenges,” Palak says, adding that Alia is just one of Fair Care Labs’ offerings for solving the problems domestic workers face. “It’s an important start in terms of developing coherent and clear products for people who are in non-traditional work arrangements, which increasingly many people in the US economy and around the world find themselves in.”

As growing numbers of Americans are forced to work in the informal sector or in the gig economy, the national discussion around ‘portable benefits’ – benefits provided outside of the traditional employment arrangement that workers can take with them from job to job – is gaining in importance. “Now others are experiencing what’s it’s always been like for domestic workers in this country,” Palak says.

Immigrants, primarily from Spanish-speaking countries south of the U.S. border, make up a disproportionate number of domestic workers. Pressures brought by recent immigration reforms leaves them even more susceptible to exploitation and abuse by their employers, including human trafficking, confiscated passports, and substandard wages. “These people are really living on the edges of the economy,” Palak says. “They are really scared and they need work, but the more they are affected by immigration status, they more vulnerable they are.”

Given this tremendous power differential, getting domestic workers to ask their existing employers to participate in Alia is not always easy. “There’s a lot of finessing and testing that we need to do with this product to figure out how we can present this to both sides in a way that really enables more and more people to use the system.”

Nevertheless, Palak remains upbeat about Alia’s future. “What we are learning is that many employers want to do good by their cleaners,” she says. “They have never really had an easy mechanism to do things for the cleaners and the domestic workers who make all their other work possible. They want it to be simple and uncomplicated, and that’s what we’re going for with Alia. And we’ve been getting good feedback from the employers.”

Alia is moving from the private alpha phase to a beta public launch in the second quarter of 2018. Google’s philanthropic arm is investing in Fair Care Labs to support the build-out of Alia and to embed Google Translate into the platform, to enable Spanish-speaking domestic workers to communicate more effectively about daily work requirements as well as contracts, job descriptions and other agreements. Numerous other agencies “are coming out of the woodwork” to partner with Fair Care Labs to develop new products and expand existing ones for the labor force.

A specialist in market-based, private-sector entrepreneurial strategies, and an active leader in the nation’s future of work conversation, Palak is well-positioned to continue creating scalable and sustainable solutions to raise standards and market norms for domestic workers and in-home care givers. “I feel real proud of how integrated and situated we are in the social movement in a way that feels really good and really authentic.

“These are the only jobs that are growing, so we have to figure out how to make these jobs good jobs,” Palak says, “which makes this a very worthy thing to get involved in.”