Historian backs home-care workers’ cause

By Mimi Yang

The business of home care in America is too often misunderstood, to the detriment of home-care workers, according to Eileen Boris, a University of California–Santa Barbara (UCSB) labor historian. In her talk, entitled “Organizing Home Care: Low-Waged Workers in the Nation’s Health & Welfare,” given at the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) on Wednesday, Boris discussed the current state of home care and argued that home-care workers deserve a fairer deal in the labor market.

Boris, the Hull chair of Women’s Studies at UCSB, presented arguments from an upcoming book she is co-authoring with Yale University historian Jennifer Klein. The book, which she said explores the links between home-care workers, welfare, and employment laws, will further illustrate the interaction between the government and organized home care. “Conflation of home care with domestic work is historical,” she said. Boris argued that the law is unclear on the status of home-care workers, comparing the government’s treatment of home-care workers to the treatment of teenage babysitters. These workers, she argued, are not considered primary breadwinners despite their long work hours, and are unjustly denied benefits.

Boris attributed this treatment to what she described as the government’s desire for home care on the cheap. “These workers are the backbone of the institution,” she said. “Without them, [home care] is not even possible.”

Home-care workers are most often female, black, under-educated, and under-paid, according to Boris. The government employs these workers in a “form of dual rehabilitation,” she said, both incorporating them into the welfare state and churning them out as so-called productive citizens. Boris argued that this process perpetuates negative stereotypes because it keeps “colored women employed in domestic work” in a constant lower class.

“The current public policy trajectory keeps home healthcare workers poor,” she said.

The lecture was part of the Michael M. Davis Seminar Series on “Health and Vulnerable Populations” held by the Center for Health Administration at the SSA. The seminar series, in its inaugural year, presents speakers who have an interest in “health and health policy research for disadvantaged populations.”