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The Fight for Free Time Is a Feminist Issue

Thousands of home care workers in New York are forced to work twenty-four-hour shifts while being paid for only half the time. That’s outrageous — and on International Women’s Day, we should heed their call in taking up the struggle for control over our time.

Health care worker during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

For the last sixteen years, Edith Guttierez has regularly worked twenty-four-hour shifts as a home care worker in New York City — but she’s only paid for half of that time.

And she’s not alone. About 8 percent of New York State’s 240,000 home care workers are assigned twenty-four-hour shifts, many of them consecutive back-to-back shifts. Rest is intermittent, and real sleep is near impossible. The workers, almost all women of color and immigrants, are responsible for the health and safety of those needing round-the-clock care.

That this kind of time and wage theft is allowed to continue — and has actually increased during the pandemic — is a testament to the decrepit state of US labor law. But it also reflects an unfortunate cultural truism. The work of caregiving is invaluable — and so we simply do not value it at all.

Caregiving is indispensable to society. Without it, “the economy” as it is typically conceived, would cease to exist. The labor of health care workers, hospice aids, and day care and childcare workers, has allowed more of us to stay alive this past year and go to work.

Yet capitalism’s drive to undermine those who do essential care work — both paid and unpaid — is constant. This “crisis tendency,” as Nancy Fraser calls it — undermining the very work that undergirds the entire system — often looks different depending on the form capitalism takes. But a universal way it rears its head is by purposefully forcing caregivers to work for free. The routinely poor treatment of caregivers in the United States, for instance, is pushing large swaths of workers out of the industry at the exact time we need them more than ever.

Fraser isn’t the first to recognize this tendency. By demanding “wages for housework,” socialist feminists in the 1970s sought not only pay for their labor in the home, but to call attention to the fact that the entire capitalist economy was free-riding on the backs of homemakers, the vast majority of whom were women. If, as was often suggested, the economy could not afford to pay for housework, the demand for wages doubled as a demand for a new kind of economy that either valued care work or abolished its necessity. As Kathi Weeks argued, “it was a reformist project with revolutionary aspirations.”

Decades later, that’s a great way to describe Guttierez’s organizing. When she and her coworkers complained to their employment agencies, they were told to ignore their patients during sleeping hours. If they chose to care for their patients, it was their own decision. Rather than accept this callous advice, Guttierez and other home care attendants organized with the Ain’t I a Woman?! Campaign to demand the end of twenty-four-hour work shifts.

Their efforts have led to the introduction of state legislation mandating that people in need of twenty-four hours of assistance would receive care from workers in two nonsequential twelve-hour shifts. Caregivers would finally be paid for the time they worked rather than being forced to toil twelve hours for free.

The twenty-four-hour workday is enshrined in New York state labor law. Home care attendants have historically been paid for thirteen hours of a twenty-four-hour shift in accordance with a New York State Department of Labor guidance dating back to the 1990s.

But over the last four years, more than a hundred forty-five class action complaints have been filed on behalf of home care attendants seeking pay for deducted sleep and meal hours, and in 2017, the New York Supreme Court sided with workers in their demand to be compensated for every hour on the job. In response to the ruling, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Labor Department issued an emergency regulation that stated bona fide meal periods and sleep times may be excluded from hours worked by home care aides. The regulation remains in effect today, and Cuomo has shown no interest in changing it. More surprisingly, the caregiver’s union, SEIU-1199, hasn’t made it a priority either.

Historically, unions were the primary means by which workers chipped away at the length of the workday. Yet as organized labor’s power plummeted — today only about 11 percent of US workers carry a union card — so did their ability to moderate the metronome of American capitalism. The result: the slow return of a long-hours economy that has barely been registered as a complaint among the largest official labor organizations.

The Ain’t I a Woman?! Campaign has repeatedly tried to engage with SEIU-1199, the caregivers’ union. But ending time and wage theft has not yet been taken up in earnest by the union, and they are not a sponsor of the proposed legislation.

The long-hours economy has hit low-income workers the hardest. Stagnating wages, declining union density, and rising social precarity have meant that low-wage workers simply can’t afford to work less. From 1979 to 2018 they increased their work hours by 24 percent, compared to just 3.6 percent by the highest earners. Women are significantly overrepresented in this category. They make up seven in ten workers at jobs that pay under ten dollars per hour, where volatility in hours and earnings are the most extreme.

The United States’ private health insurance system is also implicated in this. About 50 percent of Americans get health care through their employer. Minimum-hour eligibility requirements for coverage and high out-of-pocket expenses keep workers locked into long-hour work schedules just to receive medical care. Employers, in turn, press for longer hours from workers rather than hiring more workers. Winning a Medicare for All system would strip employers of their power over workers’ health care, allowing unions to bargain for other benefits such as higher pay and shorter hours, and even provide nonunionized workers with more leverage in the workplace.

In the century since Clara Zetkin proposed an International Working Women’s Day, women workers have gained significant power. Nonetheless, what was once a paradigmatic symbol of women’s liberation — waged work outside the home — has lost its luster as the care economy has been systematically devalued.

Labor’s original mission was to win not just higher wages and benefits, but also to win control over workers’ time. And it’s campaigns like the one led by Guttierez, to finally end unpaid “women’s work,” that can win meaningful reforms and breathe new life into a dream of past revolutionaries.