Southern public sector workers are fighting to stay safe, while they perform essential services

Public sector workers are more highly unionized than private sector ones, so it’s to be expected that they have some more ability to bargain about working conditions during the COVID-19 shutdown. However, public sector unionization isn’t uniform across the US—in many states, public employees labor under Right-to-Work laws, or work in states that don’t allow collective bargaining in the public sector. 

North Carolina is one of the Southern states that explicitly ban public sector employers and employees from signing a collective bargaining agreement–some have described it as the last relic of the Jim Crow South. To get a sense of how public workers are protecting themselves, as well as the public, I talked to members and staff from UE Local 150, which represents city workers in five cities in the state, as well as the state university system, and other parts of the state government. 

After a Raleigh sanitation worker Adrian Grubbs became the second person in the state to die of the disease, the union pushed for safety precautions and PPE for essential workers around the state—and some cities initially responded proactively. Charlotte, for example, switched their sanitation workers’ schedules to a rotating one, where workers shared shifts by working one week on and one week off—to reduce the number of people in the facilities each morning. However, after complaints from residents that their trash wasn’t being picked up “on time,” the City recently informed the entire sanitation department that they should report for work on Monday, 4/6. 

Dominc Harris, the president of the UE chapter at the City of Charlotte said in a phone interview, “Workers should die so they have a clean curb? It’s out for maybe 12 hours. It makes us feel like they are endangering us. It’s not fair, it’s not right.” On Monday morning, public workers around the city will be wearing stickers to show solidarity with the sanitation department. 

According to UE Local 150 organizer Dante Strobino, the union has launched several petitions supporting workers in both the state university system and in various cities, including this one that supports the Charlotte workers. “We wanted petitions that people could circulate through their cell phones, so they didn’t have to have physical contact, or pass around paper and pens (which could spread disease),” Strobino told me. “It’s attracted a bunch of interest from workers who weren’t previously active with the union. We had 500 university workers sign a petition to UNC and the governor, before it went out to the public.” 

While most students have left the university in order to minimize the spread of disease, UNC has let around 600 students who had no where else to go (mostly international students and students who have dysfunctional family relationships or no other place to go) shelter in place on campus. That means that the kitchens are still open, and housekeepers are still expected to report to work. However, those workers who have small children are finding themselves torn, as many of the daycare centers and schools that watch their children while they’re at work in normal times have closed. 

Greisa Vazquez, a housekeeper who works for the state Department of Health & Human Services at Central Regional Hospital, told me that she’s been at home since the daycare that her three-year-old attends was closed. “I went to HR weeks ago to ask them about the plan for those of us who have kids—and they didn’t have one. Other workers have family members taking care of their children, but my family all live in Puerto Rico, so I don’t have anyone here. My paid time has already been used up. I’m stressed because I can lose my job while I’m waiting for them to figure it out. I just moved into a new apartment, and I’m going to lose it if I can’t pay my rent.”

Strobino told me that the state’s mental health workers, generally, have not been getting hazard pay, even though the hospitals are still accepting in-patient admissions, making it hard to practice physical distancing. “They’re supposed to pay time and half during health emergencies—and they’re not even doing that. They’re not handing out enough personal protective equipment, for instance, not everyone is given an N95 mask yet. The Department is sending home instructions on how to sew your own mask. Some units are taking hand sanitizer off the floors to save it til there is a case—but the (mostly white) nurses get to use it, while the (mostly Black and Brown) blue-collar staff are denied access.” 

The union has recently worked with other movement groups to launch a new coalition: North Carolina United for Survival and Beyond, and is putting pressure on the state legislature to convene a special session to spend about $3.2 billion in Rainy Day & other funds, to address immediate and long-term needs related to the crisis presented by income and social inequality, as well as those directly created by the virus. 

Startups and domestic worker campaigns are shaking up the house cleaning business, but only one of them has backing from venture capital

It’s hard to imagine a lot of people saying “No” to a hot new tech startup fresh off a $38 million fundraising round from some of Silicon Valley’s top investors. But that’s the answer Homejoy, an “Uber for house-cleaning” app that has quickly expanded to major cities across the US, got when it reached out to two domestic worker organizations in San Francisco, hoping to recruit workers and craft some kind of pilot partnership. The two organizations are La Colectiva, a worker-run cleaning collective, and Caring Hands, a worker association affiliated with the Latina immigrant organization Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) that provides training and job placement for domestic workers. Their members were not willing to work for Homejoy’s rate of $13 per hour.

Homejoy and the domestic worker groups represent two very different types of the “disruptive” innovation that the San Francisco Bay Area seems to specialize in these days. Domestic worker organizing has defied major structural disadvantages –exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act, isolation in individual homes that prevents workplace organizing, and the fact that most domestic workers are immigrant women and many are undocumented – to mount campaigns like the multi-year fight for a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that was signed into law in California last September. Their movement has played a key role in both energizing and transforming the labor movement, helping to push the AFL-CIO in the direction of representing all workers, not just those in unions.

Homejoy, and a similar startup Handybook, aim to shake up the domestic employer experience by replacing an older generation of cleaning service companies like Merry Maids. The two startups promise easy and reliable online booking of cleaners who have passed extensive screening processes. Homejoy focuses solely on cleaning, while Handybook provides workers who can handle a range of household tasks, including cleaning, repairs, plumbing, and electrical work. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the fact that the apps can eliminate the “awkward” need to interact with the person cleaning your home. Handybook founder Oisin Hanrahan told the Chronicle: “People prefer to hit the chat box in the lower left hand corner of the site and ask someone who is in the position to influence a booking to put in a special request, rather than ask the person who will be doing the cleaning.”

That article led Salon’s Andrew Leonard to comment, “From a larger social perspective, the absolute last thing the world needs are apps that further isolate the ascendant upper classes from the people who occupy lower economic strata… This is how the arteries of class stratification harden beyond hope of repair. This is how real living human beings become little more than apps, themselves.” For the most part, I agree with Leonard that the attitude toward domestic workers expressed in the Chronicle’s article is classist and dehumanizing. But after interviewing several domestic workers, domestic worker organizers, and the founder of Handybook (Homejoy agreed to answer written questions but failed to respond once the questions were submitted), I came away with a slightly more complicated view of the home-cleaning startups, and what effect they might have on the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in the United States.

Earlier this year, the California Domestic Workers Coalition launched a statewide campaign called Dignity in Action to promote education and implementation of the new state law advancing domestic worker rights. The coalition is comprised of seven member groups, including MUA and La Colectiva. They plan to train domestic workers to lead “Know Your Rights” workshops and hope to achieve a broad reach to workers beyond their memberships. Together, the member organizations count about 1500 members, but they estimate that there are about 250,000 domestic workers statewide.

The challenge of reaching domestic workers on a larger scale is a key concern for organizing efforts, and part of the reason the National Domestic Workers Alliance has hired Palak Shah to serve as its Social Innovations Director. Shah described her position: “The idea is for us to experiment with additional strategies, such as market-based strategies or public-private partnerships.” Such experiments are in order because, despite the successes that have already been achieved, domestic worker organizing is still only reaching a small fraction of domestic workers in this country.

By contrast, Handybook has achieved scale rapidly. Since its founding in mid-2012, Handybook has expanded to 13 cities. In a phone interview, founder Oisin Hanrahan told me that the majority of Handybook’s business is in housecleaning, and that more than 200,000 workers (Handybook calls them service providers) have applied to work through the start-up so far. Hanrahan says that the acceptance rate is less than 3%.

With so many applicants (Handybook’s service providers are considered independent contractors who are self-employed), Handybook uses a partially-automated, data-driven approach to select workers. Applicants complete online assessments like multiple choice questions on how they would tackle a specific cleaning job. They also go through extensive background checks, social security number matching, and a screening call. Since Handybook collects data on customer satisfaction, it’s able to work backwards to identify markers of workers who received particularly high feedback, and then seek the same attributes in new applicants. Hanrahan told me that one positive marker is whether a person dials in on time for the screening call – a data point that becomes part of a worker’s profile.

Such an approach couldn’t be farther from the organizing models of San Francisco’s domestic worker organizations. At Caring Hands, immigrant women receive training in skills like contract negotiation and ergonomic cleaning techniques. Caring Hands also matches workers to employers. Unlike Handybook or Homejoy, Caring Hands does not require background checks or social security number matching (many domestic workers are undocumented immigrants and both organizations are involved in campaigning for immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship). Instead, the organization vouches personally for each member. “We can advocate for workers and say we’ve known them for at least 6 months,” says organizer Dalia Yedidia. “We think the personal connection is more important.”

La Colectiva is a worker-run cleaning collective that was founded in 2001. Guillermina Castellanos, who co-founded the group, told me through a translator that she has worked as a domestic worker since she was 5 years old in Mexico, and since she was 15 years old in the United States. In addition to running the cleaning service, the members of La Colectiva “study the history of domestic work in the United States and on a global scale, discuss fair pay rates for different types of domestic work, and attend empowerment and self-esteem groups,” Castellanos says.

La Colectiva workers charge $70 for a 3-hour minimum job, and $15 for each additional hour. Employers receive $10 off the total bill if they provide non-toxic cleaning supplies. Caring Hands doesn’t prescribe rates, but when I spoke to MUA member and house cleaner Veronica Nieto, she told me that $20/hour is “a living wage that also recognizes that this is hard work.” Homejoy’s rates are lower because it only charges customers $20/hour for cleaning – passing $12-15 on to the worker and keeping the rest for itself. Handybook doesn’t have a fixed rate, but according to Hanrahan, service providers keep about 80% of what customers pay. He says house cleaners receive $17-22/hour.

When I spoke to Hanrahan, he was concerned about the “blowback” Handybook had received after the San Francisco Chronicle’s article. “We’re very conscious of our brand,” he said. “We don’t want to be perceived as someone building a platform for people to stop talking to each other.” Hanrahan said that he was aware of domestic worker organizing, but that Handybook was not involved. “Of course the values around respect and fair labor standards and avoiding exploitation make a lot of sense,” he said, and emphasized that many of Handybook’s workers are single mothers who appreciate the flexibility of the platform. “Our goal is to allow our service providers to earn as they want to earn.”

Daniele DeLeone, a 24-year old New Yorker who cleans homes through Handybook, agreed with Hanrahan that the app is a great way for her to find work that fits her schedule. DeLeone is a full-time student who lives with family and describes herself as “semi-independent.” After working in restaurants, she found Handybook through a Craigslist ad. “You’re able to choose what hours you work,” she says. “The pay is much better than what I would get hostessing.”

DeLeone’s top priority when she’s working in other people’s homes is “safety and security,” so she finds the Handybook system – where the company knows where she is at all times and she can communicate with them while on the job – very helpful. “I watch way too many Law & Orders to put myself at risk,” she says. She described one situation where a customer wanted her to go out on a ledge to clean windows. DeLeone said no, and was able to call Handybook, which backed her up. She also appreciates that customers have to pay ahead of time (with credit cards through the Handybook interface). In an industry where, according to Yedidia, wage theft is rampant, that’s a serious plus.

DeLeone was not aware of domestic worker organizing efforts, like Domestic Workers United which operates in New York City. When I described the efforts of the groups, DeLeone, who is planning to attend veterinary school after graduation, said, “I would imagine that’s more for people who are being abused or if it’s their livelihood forever.”

That is a major distinction and part of the reason why domestic workers like Nieto are as much concerned with dignity and respect for domestic workers as they are with legislation around working conditions. Prior to joining MUA, Nieto worked for a woman who had a team of about four others working for her. “She paid us $10 per house cleaned, no matter how long it took,” Nieto said. After 5 or 6 years working under those conditions, Nieto joined MUA where, she says, “I began realizing that what I’d been paid was not a real wage. I realized that I was part of thousands of domestic workers who have been underpaid.” Now Nieto has a very different attitude toward domestic work. “I deserve respect as a person doing work, just like any other work, like a doctor or an architect. My job is to clean.”

To Nieto, the most important aspect of her relationship with an employer is clear communication and respect, a stance that is echoed by Castellanos, who says “face to face interaction” is “necessary in fostering healthy communication and a good professional relationship.” Castellanos rejects the sense of “awkwardness” raised by the Chronicle article: “Domestic workers take care of the parts of employers’ lives that are most precious to them, be it their home or their family members. Employers also provide domestic workers with something that is also incredibly important to them: work. There should be no shame in this mutually beneficial arrangement, and through improved communication both the lives of the domestic workers and their employers can be transformed through mutual respect and recognition.”

Can these intensely personal values translate to a larger scale? Both Caring Hands and La Colectiva allow potential employers to get in touch through their websites, and Yedidia says, “We’ve seen a big jump in bookings through using online tools.” But how far the groups are willing to go in embracing technology is an open question. Kira Cummins, who provides staff support to La Colectiva, said of Homejoy, “Unless they change their working conditions, we’re not interested in working with them.”

Both Yedidia and Cummins were pleased to hear about Handybook’s higher wages, but Handybook hasn’t expressed any interest in collaboration. And with backing from venture capitalists, it’s unlikely that Handybook, Homejoy, or any for-profit company will ever consider changing societal attitudes toward domestic workers a central goal.

Palak Shah, the social innovations director, says of the start-up companies, “We’re open to partnering with the industry to the extent that they’re providing good jobs, not poverty jobs, and that the jobs foster dignity and respect and allow people to care for their families.”

Nieto is more skeptical. “In the little I know about these apps,” she says, “I worry that it might not work for the workers. Communication is key, and communication through a computer could be a challenge for us, especially because we need to be respected as people, not as robots.”