Today, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) announced a new pilot program for domestic workers who use the Handy platform. The pilot, which will run in three states (Florida, Kentucky, and Indiana), is a victory for thousands of workers, nearly all women of color, who are denied even the minimal protections of traditional labor and employment law. It emerges from years of struggle by the NDWA, a worker-led movement dedicated to winning improved conditions, dignity, and justice for care workers across the country. Under the agreement reached between the newly launched NDWA Gig Worker Advocates and the company, workers will be guaranteed a $15/hour minimum wage, they will earn paid time off (about 20 days per year for full time workers), and they will be covered by occupational accident insurance. Both the paid time off and the insurance benefits will be administered by the NDWA, on its Alia portable benefits platform. Through the pilot, the workers will also gain a mechanism for collective voice through which they can communicate concerns to Handy and confer with Handy over additional subjects—beyond those covered by the pilot—that impact their work lives.
Based on details that are publicly available and on our discussions with NDWA, we want to highlight two aspects of the agreement that deserve celebration. First, what the pilot does. Most obviously, the pilot secures for these domestic workers the same minimum wage rights that workers across the country have been struggling to achieve, and which many have now won: $15 an hour. Because many domestic workers – including many of those who work through the Handy platform – are not classified as “employees” under either federal or state law, they do not qualify for the protection of minimum wage law. And even if they were entitled to minimum wage in the pilot states, they would earn far less what the pilot provides: in Kentucky and Indiana, the state minimum wage is now $7.25 an hour; in Florida, it is $8.56; and the federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25.
Similarly, the agreement regarding paid time off and insurance coverage operates to extend to domestic workers the kind of basic entitlements that all workers ought to enjoy. With respect to the paid time off, the workers covered by the pilot will be entitled to greater benefits than those afforded to employees under most state laws – which, shamefully, offer no paid time off at all. This is true for state law in the three pilot states, under which workers are entitled to zero paid time off. With respect to accident insurance, the workers covered by the pilot will gain a minimum entitlement that nearly all employees in the United States now receive through workers compensation programs, but that most domestic workers are denied.
It is also significant that both benefits will be administered by Alia, NDWA Labs’ portable benefits platform. As a threshold matter, because the benefits will be administered by the workers’ own organization, the workers can ensure that they will be administered in their own interests. Moreover, as is true in so-called Ghent systems – where unions administer unemployment benefits – the Alia-run benefits structure will serve to build NDWA’s membership base and thus to strengthen the collective power of the workers themselves – including in their future dealings with Handy.
The pilot also establishes a meet-and-confer system of worker voice. Although the structure does not amount to full collective bargaining, it is a significant step forward for domestic workers, who are categorically excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act due to an exclusionary and racist settlement reached in the 1930s when the law was first enacted. The pilot falls short of extending full organizing and bargaining rights to these workers, but it provides significant gains, including robust protection against retaliation and surveillance for workers who participate in the process, an important baseline for any such system. The conferences, moreover, will not only give workers a forum to communicate concerns and demands, but will provide for NDWA and its members a powerful locus for further organizational activity. Put differently, although the pilot does not require Handy to accept any demand made by worker advocates, it does set up a process and a clear forum around which workers can organize collective action to press their demands.
This, then, leads to the second set of the pilot’s features which deserve praise: what the pilot does not do. First, the pilot does not lock workers into second-class employment status going forward; namely, it doesn’t classify them as independent contractors for any purpose. Second, the pilot does not require that NDWA give up its right to organize, strike, picket, boycott, or “disparage” Handy in exchange for the pilot’s substantive gains. This is critical because rather than establishing a ceiling for workplace rights, the pilot will act more as a floor onto which NDWA can continue to build through future organizing efforts and collective action. Viewed this way, the pilot is both a product of NDWA’s organizational strength and past collective actions and a vehicle for continued organizational development and collective action.
The NDWA GWA/Handy pilot comes at a pivotal time. If nothing else, this past year has highlighted just how essential care work is—and yet how undervalued and exploited it remains. There is much still to be achieved. But, this agreement, the product of years of organizing by NDWA workers, is both an impressive step forward and an important foundation on which future progress can be built.