Like an estimated 45-million Americans, Deborah Brockington of Durham is a caregiver for her aging mother. She spends her days assisting in tasks like bathing, feeding, and assisting in general household tasks. Except, Brockington isn’t caring for her mother most days, she’s on the job as a Certified Nursing Assistant. While she’s working at her low wage job as a CNA, her mother is doing without help or her siblings are filling in the gap.
When Brockington does take time to care for her mother, the leave from her CNA job is unpaid. On top of that, she’s tasked with finding a replacement for her paid position before she can take time off. Alternatively she uses her weekends off to care for her mother, but that leaves her very little time to care for her daughter, let alone time for herself.
“I never get a break,” she told me.
Brockington is classified as a domestic worker, one of two million women who care for our homes, children and families every year according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. The majority of domestic workers are women of color and immigrants and the entire employment group of domestic workers is largely unprotected by any current Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provisions. FMLA protections are limited to private companies with 50 or more employees a benchmark few home health companies hit.
Recent estimates indicate that 59-percent of employees are FMLA eligible, and domestic workers like Brockington often fall outside of that number.
Beyond that, the only major national family medical leave law which was passed in 1993 only requires employers to offer uncompensated leave for up to 12 weeks. Since they barely make a living wage, that’s not an option for most home health aides, whose median salary is just over $24,000 annually. The living wage in Durham is almost $28,000 annually.
“I can’t even explain what it does to a person to have to worry about pay. My bills get behind. My credit is going bad. My rent is never on time,” Brockington shared.
It’s important to note that when Congress first passed federal labor protections in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, they excluded two groups of workers: domestic workers and farmworkers. This exclusion was driven by the Southern lobby, whose states had a large number of personal servants.
Almost 100 years later, the exclusion has a compounding impact on our economy, and a disproportionate effect on women and people of color. Home health aides are projected to be one of the country’s fastest growing job categories. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics(BLS), overall employment of home health aides and personal care aides is projected to grow 41 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all other occupations.
Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington, Carolifornia and the District of Columbia have laws requiring paid leave. Oregon is expected to pass the country’s most progressive paid leave law this year.
Another class of workers often left out of FMLA are those in the service industry. Once believed to be a job to get high school and college students through school, an increasing number of Americans are turning to it as a career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that service-providing industries will account for 90-percent of job growth in the economy over the next ten years. That equals more than 10 million new jobs.
For some, the money is too good to turn down. In fact, Raleigh is ranked second in the country in terms of the highest annual mean wage ($35,890) for food preparation and food service workers, according to the BLS.
In addition to traditional jobs in bars and restaurants, North Carolina’s growing beer industry adds to that. There are more than 300 breweries in the state, contributing $2.7 billion annually in wages and employing 63,000 people, according to the North Carolina Brewers Guild’s latest estimate.
Leslie Kawa Johnson works as the Front of House Manager at a brew pub in North Carolina.
Like most in her industry, she does not receive paid leave, and like Brockington, has to find a replacement for any shifts she needs to miss.
“One of the many challenges that I have faced is that I am fully responsible for finding staff to cover my shifts regardless of the circumstances of the leave. It is also my responsibility to ensure that, when I do find someone to cover those shifts, that they show up for said shifts, and if they don’t, I am at fault,” Johnson shared.
She says she’s missed many important events, including funerals of friends and family, because she wasn’t able to find a replacement in time.
So what’s the solution? There are measures on the table nationally.
In 2017, Congress passed a tax credit for companies offering paid leave to their employees, that meets certain parameters, but that credit ends this year.
The federal FAMILY Act (Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act – S. 463/H.R. 1185) proposes to create a national wage insurance program for persons engaged in family care giving activities or who need to take leave for their own serious health condition. It is currently referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.
This summer Representative Pramila Jayapal and Senator Kamala Harris introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The legislation, if passed, would offer domestic workers common workplace rights such as paid sick days, meal and rest breaks and privacy protections. New York and Hawaii already have laws with those protections.
North Carolina currently does not make any list of states going above and beyond for its workers. There is no NC state law that requires private employers to grant their employees paid or unpaid sick leave, although many employers do grant it as an important employee benefit.
However, the state made progress this year for the public sector. Through executive order, Governor Roy Cooper is giving state employees eight weeks of paid parental leave after giving birth or four weeks of paid parental leave after their partner gives birth, or in the event of adoption or foster care placement of a child. Parents will receive 100-percent of their regular pay during that time. This new order takes effect September 1st of this year.
Historically, it’s the public sector that lays the groundwork for the private sector to follow suit, but that remains to be proven in the Tar Heel State.
But North Carolina has a lot to gain if they push forward. A 2019 report from the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University predicts a paid family and medical leave insurance policy would would reduce infant mortality, nursing home costs and use of government assistance.
For Brockington, a chapter leader of We Dream in Black NC, what the state and workers like herself have to gain, is worth the effort.
“I’m going to keep fighting. It’s sad when we have to go every day to take care of someone else’s loved ones and we can’t take time off to take care of our own loved ones. It’s not fair – it’s just unjust,” she said.
Stephanie Carson is an Emmy-award winning producer based in Asheville with 20 years of experience in television, radio and print.