Sitting in a room full of domestic workers who were busy campaigning for Stacey Abrams, I felt like I was talking to one of my four sisters or having a kiki with my mama and aunties.
On October 26, I stopped by a text-a-thon in Atlanta organized by Care in Action, the political arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). Volunteers were texting people across Georgia to make sure they voted early or planned to vote in the midterm election on November 6. While I was interviewing one woman, another ran up to show us a message from a constituent who replied “Hell yea I’m voting for Stacey Abrams. I’m rooting for everybody Black.” We had a loud, hearty laugh.
NDWA represents 2.5 million domestic workers nationwide, and Care in Action has mobilized members to get out the vote for Stacey Abrams, who is close to becoming the first Black woman governor in U.S. history. Abrams is the first candidate the group has ever endorsed, and the text-a-thon was just one of many they have organized this election season.
The environment was jovial. Friends and comrades were breaking bread and catching up. Georgia State Sen. Nikema Williams, who serves as State Director of Care in Action, brought her toddler who ran around in a Spiderman costume. During a break, a few members did the Cupid Shuffle and taught each other how to do the Wobble. Black Lives Matter founder and NDWA’s Strategy and Partnerships Director Alicia Garza beckoned me to join the dance line but despite the temptation, I declined.
A few minutes later, Garza urged the volunteers to enjoy themselves when doing movement work.
“We need more dancing! The movement must be fun,” she said.
“We need more dancing! The movement must be fun.”
I encountered a similar scene on October 6 at a march against Brett Kavanaugh’s eventual Supreme Court confirmation. Members of NDWA were drumming, laughing and chanting even though the odds were stacked against their cause. Marchers spoke of victory even though they knew the battle against Kavanaugh was lost.
Despite the exuberance of their events, the work they do is very serious. There is too much to lose.
NDWA recently surveyed 49 Atlanta home healthcare providers, child caregivers, and house cleaners for the first volume of a two-part report called Pay, Professionalism and Respect. The findings are troubling. Sixty-seven percent of them do not make enough money to cover all of their living expenses. A staggering 82 percent of respondents rely on public assistance. Forty-three percent of respondents don’t have any benefits like health insurance, sick leave, or retirement. Domestic workers are exempted from most federal labor protections––for example, some don’t have a right to overtime pay. Many of them work without labor contracts, which leaves them at the mercy of their employers.
The racialized and feminized nature of their work dates back to slavery when Black women had to sacrifice their needs and those of their own families to look after enslavers’ families. The legacy of that dark time in history still shapes the treatment of domestic workers in the 21st century.
According to Pay, Professionalism and Respect, 75 percent of “agency-based, direct-care care caregivers” in Georgia are Black. Joan Samuel Lewis, a certified nursing assistant featured in the report, is very familiar with that sacrifice. Lewis got divorced and took on additional work to support her ten children. Lewis had to do a lot of parenting over the phone.
“I was never at home. It’s 12-hour shifts. After a while, as the kids got bigger and needed more, I started working weekends to make ends meet,” she said.
“I was never at home. It’s 12-hour shifts. After a while, as the kids got bigger and needed more, I started working weekends to make ends meet.”
“Sometimes, I’d be gone the whole weekend. I was away from home, so I was on the phone with them all the time. That’s how I was running my children—on the phone. There’s a fight? I’m on the phone.”
The devaluation of this work can be internalized by the workers themselves.
Sen. Williams told me that at a recent political event, she noticed a woman at an isolated table and struck up a conversation. The woman, who introduced herself as Fatou, turned out to be a nanny who looked after the children of the politician at the center of the event.
“I thanked her for helping the candidate and she said ‘Oh, I’m her nanny.’ She didn’t see that as her helping the candidate, and I said ‘Well, especially, thank you.’ It brought me to tears,” Williams recalled.
When the candidate gave remarks, she did something that isn’t typical. She not only thanked her donors, she also thanked Fatou and acknowledged that, without her work, she wouldn’t have been able to run for office.
“Fatou didn’t see that in herself but the candidate did,” Williams said. “This is what this is about. It’s about uplifting the voice of those who have been unheard and unseen for so long in the political process. The more we bring those voices into the room, the more we uplift everyone. When the most marginalized in our society are lifted up then everybody gets lifted up.”
Another central issue for domestic workers is healthcare. Medicaid expansion, the main tenet of Abrams’ campaign, could change their lives.
“Georgia is still one of the states that has not expanded Medicaid,” said Tamika Middleton, organizing director of the Georgia chapter of NDWA.
“What that means for domestic workers is, one, many of them don’t have access to healthcare. They are caring for other people’s loved ones but don’t have the means to care for themselves. Simultaneously, it means healthcare workers don’t have access to higher wages because a lot of them get paid via Medicaid and Medicaid reimbursement.”
Currently, parents who make between $6,000 and $16,000 annually are stuck in the Medicaid coverage gap––they make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to qualify for subsidized private insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Single adults don’t qualify for Medicaid at all, no matter how low their income. Expanding Medicaid would unlock healthcare access for as many as half a million Georgians.
These experiences have motivated the domestic workers as they knocked on doors, phone banked and sent over 50,000 text messages urging voters to elect Stacey Abrams.
Many of them have been working to shift Georgia’s political landscape for months. Shechel Williams, a home health aid, has been in the streets for weeks canvassing in support of Abrams.
“Another reporter asked would we be surprised if she won, or something like that. I was like ‘Girl! You’re out here canvassing with me.’ I wouldn’t waste my time. Of course, I believe she’s gonna win and she deserves to win. People are really enthusiastic about her,” she said.
Sen. Williams agrees. She added that the work Care in Action is doing now will have an impact no matter the outcome of this election.
“Georgia is not the start and finish of the work of Care in Action and uplifting the voices of domestic workers,” she said. “We’re looking at a vision toward 2020. We’re looking at who is going to be the next president, the next governors, and who will be looking to run for Congress. We’re about centering the power of women of color.”