- By Kerry Hannon
When is the last time you worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for total pay of $225? My guess is probably never.
But if you’re a live-in domestic worker taking care of children or an in-home worker caring for the elderly, you probably have an inkling of how this scenario plays out.
Barbara Young, 66, certainly does. Last night, Young — a former nanny who is now a voice for domestic workers nationwide as an organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance — was saluted as one of seven winners of the 2013 Purpose Prize. That’s the award given to amazing people over 60 by Encore.org, the San Francisco-based nonprofit aiming to help people pursue encore careers: second acts for the greater good.
Young’s Words to Remember
When Young took the stage last night to accept her Purpose Prize (which came with $25,000), she humbly quoted Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The words hung like precious gems in the room.
I had the privilege of sitting down to talk with Young earlier in the week to learn more about her journey and the work she’s doing to improve pay and working conditions for the millions of domestic workers (mostly women) in America — including nannies, housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly.
Her Inspiring Third Act
Young’s first act was working as a bus conductor in her native Barbados for 20 years while raising five children. In 1993, she emigrated to New York City and the only job she could find was as a caregiver for an elderly couple. That position rolled into a series of nanny jobs for nearly 18 years, her second act.
Although Young didn’t know it when starting out as a nanny, her new calling and third act would follow.
(MORE: A Manual for Encore Careers)
After several years nannying, in 2001, Young signed up for a nanny certificate-training program in New York City offered by the Domestic Workers United (DWU) through Hunter College. Her goal was to pick up extra skills, such as CPR. But after the class’s tutorials on child psychology and discipline, the discussion took a political turn, with the students learning about the history of domestic work in the U.S.
Her Motivation to Become a Champion
That’s when Young discovered there were few labor laws protecting domestic workers. She began hearing stories of caregivers who were fired without warning and not paid for work they had done. And she knew first-hand the toll taken on them by the long days, low pay and lack of benefits.
“The light went on,” Young said. “I knew I wanted to change the way domestic workers viewed themselves and the way they were treated. I wanted to lift them up and support them.”
She immediately signed on as a volunteer with DWU. For the next decade, while working as a nanny, Young organized and motivated other nannies to join the movement. “I just filled my bag with all the fliers and news letters from DWU and handed them out to all the domestic workers I saw in the streets of New York,” she recalled.
Helping to Get a Landmark Law Passed
In 2004, Young zeroed in on helping to get the New York state legislature to pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which would make overtime, paid time off and rest days mandatory there.
She was fearless. Frequently the main person representing domestic workers in policymaker meetings, Young arranged for them to be bused to Albany so lawmakers could hear firsthand about their work conditions.
In 2010, the law was passed — the first of its kind in the country. “We made a lot of noise,” she said.
When her nanny job came to an end that same year, Young found herself looking for her next job. By serendipity, she came across the posting for a national organizer position with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), of which DWU is a member, and nailed it.
Young has been a key player in the NDWA’s expansion from 11 to 46 affiliated organizations with 15,000 members, up from 5,000 in 2007. She’s now backing a push for a higher federal minimum wage and is active in the debate about immigration reform.
New Goal: Aiding Caregivers for the Elderly
Her next major campaign: improving the wages, labor protections and training of caregivers for the aging population, through Caring Across Generations — an initiative funded in part by the Ford Foundation. Work conditions for elderly caregivers, Young said, are often similar to those of nannies: low pay, few, if any, benefits and high turnover.
“It’s an effort to support seniors like me to receive the support we need to age in our homes and communities while improving the home-care jobs that make that possible,” she said.
Among the Caring Across Generations goals are creating federal standards for certification of personal care attendants and Social Security caregiver credits for those who leave the workforce to provide care.
I really liked the way Young described why now she fights so hard to improve the lives of caregivers: “At the end of the day, it is the love that these people have for the work they do. You don’t need to get paid for the love, but for the work, you must.”
What does the Purpose Prize mean to her? “I hope my recognition inspires other older adults to find something they are passionate about and to do it and to help other people in whatever way they can. Be an activist,” she said with a smile. “I am.”
3 Lessons from Young’s Journey
While Young’s entire career arc is inspiring, there are three lessons in her story that stand out for me:
1. Older workers do get hired. Young landed her full-time organizer position at 63. She beamed when mentioning that to me, saying that she never even considered her age would be an issue.
“I knew I had the skills to do the job,” she told me. “And it was my passion. I had worked those long hours for low pay and no benefits and I knew in my heart that things had to change.”
What about age discrimination against older workers? “I find that it’s an advantage being a woman 60-plus,’ Young said. “I come with years of experience, and I want to pass it on. I see a need for younger people to learn to stand up for their rights as domestic workers and I can help teach them how to do that.”
Marc Freedman, founder of Encore.org, summed it up nicely for me. “Barbara Young’s path is a reminder that so many Purpose Prize winners are doing work deeply rooted in their earlier experience. Their efforts often are marked more by evolution, a coming together of accumulated experience and life lessons, than by radical departures.”
2. The best jobs come from networking. Young said caregivers for the elderly can often get better pay and working conditions by working independently and finding positions through word-of-mouth referrals.
“Most of the homecare agencies don’t have benefits for the workers and they take a big cut out of the homecare dollars,” she said.
That said, Young added, caregivers must stand up for themselves and the work they do. So if you want to take on this type of work, be sure to have a signed contract with your employer laying out your vacation days, sick leave and overtime pay, she said.
3. Success after 50 comes from redeploying, not reinventing. “Young’s path underscores that it’s not always necessary to start something new to achieve significant impact,” Freedman says. “She brought the skills of experience and innovation to lift an existing effort to new heights.”