A standing room only audience attending a Women’s Research Forum at the Massachusetts State House heard a clarion call from women economists and policy experts to increase wages and benefits and improve working conditions for the tens of thousands of mostly women caring for elders and young children. The April 6 forum, “Valuing Women’s Paid Care Work: From Research to Public Policy in Massachusetts,” was organized by the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy (CWPPP), part of the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.
Senator Anne Gobi, the Senate co-chair of the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators (MCWL), which co-sponsored the forum, underlined the group’s commitment to these issues and described the Caucus as a “small group of women with strong voices looking at issues of family and society.” CWPPP Director Ann Bookman told participants that policies were needed to advance opportunities for these work forces, whose contributions are largely unrecognized and undervalued yet whose services are “absolutely essential to our state’s economy and to families.” McCormack Dean Ira A. Jackson highlighted the school’s longstanding commitment to advancing social justice through public policy.
The assembled panel of prominent academics and nonprofit leaders analyzed the current work environment for child and elder care providers and recommended policy action to improve and stabilize their working conditions. Nancy Folbre, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst noted that, “Our economy is bigger than is projected by the market per se. Families and communities provide unpriced services.” Because it is mostly women who enter the care-giving professions and also take more time out from paid employment to care for children and the elderly, the key to gender equality she said, was giving value to this massive amount of unpaid work. “People who enter care occupations, whether they are women or men, typically pay a penalty for doing so … People are penalized for not having market-based motives,” she said. Folbre said that some policymakers expect that families will pick up caregiving if it is not available or affordable and called this “the hostage effect̶ traditional gender roles have rendered women hostage to care responsibilities.”
Panel chair Randy Albelda, a professor of economics at UMass Boston and senior research fellow at the Center for Social Policy, said that Massachusetts state and local governments spend about 57 percent of their budgets on paid care work. She highlighted a recent policy victory in the adoption of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in Massachusetts which had just gone into effect. Albelda described a bifurcated care workforce, in which a higher tier including K-12 teachers, nurses, and other health care providers and social workers have higher salaries and more benefits. The second tier consists of the “invisible” workforce of the elder and child care workers who are not well paid and “do not enjoy much autonomy” in their work. Although society assigns greater value to the work of the first group, Albelda points out that the job conditions of these professions improved through planned efforts including union actions and negotiations.
Lisa Gurgone, executive director of the Home Care Aide Council, and an alumna of the CWPPP’s gender and leadership graduate program, stressed the importance of home health care workers, noting that they allow elderly individuals to remain in their homes, avoiding costly nursing home placements, and allowing family members to continue to work. “Without these workers, there would not be home health care,” she said. Gurgone also noted that approximately one third are single moms and two-thirds only have a high school education or less. They face low wages and are at high risk for occupational injury, especially back strains, as they move infirm patients. They are also exposed to contagions. A high turnover in the field is both costly and leads to adverse patient outcomes, she noted. As more and more people are aging in their homes, Gurgone emphasized the need for “a better trained, better supported worker to care for these people.”
“The science is now clear about the benefits of pre-K education,” said Marie St. Fleur, CEO of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children (BTWIC). St. Fleur compared early childhood education to sound infrastructure: “If we’re willing to put up a building that will stand the test of time and pay the laborers and pay the contractors, then we should be willing to invest in the architecture of our children’s future. We’re building lives and we need to invest.” Like home health aides, workers in the field of early education are paid low wages and often do not get benefits. Yet, she pointed out, these workers are increasingly required to have a college education: “We’re asking them to get a college education, but then only pay them $21 - $25,000 per year.”
“Caring for the most vulnerable members of our society is a moral imperative and one of the most important jobs of government,” said Mignon Duffy, sociology professor and associate director of the Center for Women & Work at UMass Lowell. She urged that more attention be paid to the care sector, which comprises about 22 percent of the workforce and is rapidly growing. She too pointed to the long range benefits: “We know that roads and bridges and broadband support economic development. We also have to start to invest in human infrastructure.” Duffy said that there are many economic reasons that the market “does not allocate resources to care.” She noted that health care workers suffer a higher rate of workplace injury than construction workers and are exposed to sources of infection including blood borne pathogens. They are also subject to assault and violence.
In the discussion that followed the presentations, many participants called for more coordinated action and follow-up. In response, in her closing remarks, CWPPP Director Ann Bookman asked participants to sign onto a future initiative that would be led by another forum co-sponsor, the New England Women’s Policy Initiative, which is chaired by CWPPP. Following the success of the first New England Women’s Policy Conference last fall, NEWPI has been developing strategies for mobilizing women from the region’s six states to address these issues as well as others affecting women’s economic security.