What Does Work-Life Balance Look Like For America's Low-Income Women? It Doesn't


With a recent Pew study revealing that American mothers are the breadwinners in 40% of American households, the work-life balance debate has taken a new turn. Professional women are demanding more flexible hours and prominent CEOs such as Sheryl Sandberg are insisting family time is not a career killer. Yet many professional American women increasingly rely on hired help at home to achieve their version of the work-life balance.

The question is, what does the term "work-life balance" mean for many nannies, cooks, maids, and other low-income women? The answer: What work-life balance?

According to a report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance titled "Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work," most domestic workers (it goes without saying that the vast majority of them are women) are excluded from basic protections written into U.S. law. Domestic workers are explicitly banned from forming unions and are not included in OSHA protections. They are also exempt from overtime provisions included in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

I wonder if Amy Poehler's hired help gets paid overtime and has health insurance...

Most domestic workers do not have written contracts outlining benefits and pay. Less than 4% receive health insurance from their employers, and less than 9% pay into Social Security.

Most of these workers are immigrants and people of color who endure such work conditions as a matter of survival. Many immigrant domestic workers are undocumented women who fear deportation and retaliation if they complain about their work conditions.

Of the women that Pew identified as "breadwinner mothers," 60% are single mothers with no college degree. Most of these women are black or Latina. Many work in retail or other low-wage service jobs that are often minimum wage and do not offer the benefits that many professional women take for granted. 

Professional, middle-class, and upper-class women rely on the underpaid, often unappreciated labor of immigrant women and women of color in order to achieve the elusive "work-life balance," an idea that is lauded and a term that is frequently bandied about in the American media. There needs to be a serious discussion about what the term work-life balance means, and that starts by making sure that every woman receives basic job protections and benefits that professional women naturally expect from their work. 

Universal health care, early childhood education, paid parental leave, and expanded worker protections for low-income workers would contribute to a healthy work-life balance for all women, whether they are nannies or CEOs. Yet our media rarely mentions these basic actions as the basis for work-life balance. Our culture does not see work-life balance as a societal priority or economic right. Rather, the onus is put on individual women to shuffle their careers around and prioritize between soccer practice and piano lessons. 

I don't plan on starting another mommy war or shaming women who rely on domestic labor to make their lives easier. I do not want to pit single moms against married professionals or white women against women of color. However, the work-life balance discussion needs to include all women, not just those of Anne-Marie Slaughter's and Sheryl Sandberg's social class and stature.