In the summer of 1881, Atlanta’s washerwomen had enough and called a strike. The Washing Society began with only a few dozen members, who made demands for increased pay and the autonomy to work in their own homes safe from potential Tuberculosis infection. Membership and participation in the strike increased to 3,000 washerwomen within a month and other service workers including hotel staff, nurses, cooks, and maids also struck in solidarity. At its conclusion, some washerwomen did see their demands met but the majority did not.
The parallels to today’s pandemic concerns are undeniable. Not only do domestic workers once again find themselves threatened by the risk of disease, but the face of what many would consider traditional domestic work — washing and cleaning — hasn’t changed much, either.
Examining today’s domestic sector
The series of charts below explores the rates of women and men in domestic occupational categories (chart 1), their wages (chart 2) and current unemployment vs. forecasted job growth (chart 3).
The big picture: Women make up 90% of frontline workers performing maid and housekeeping duties for an average annual salary of $22,000 per year — the lowest wage in the domestic work sector. Pandemic concerns are compounded for people in these positions: By definition, these jobs do not allow working from home, and without adequate PPE, many of these economically vulnerable workers are also finding themselves more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.