Who's Looking Out for Care Workers in the Gig Economy?

The Census Bureau estimates that 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over the age of 65 in under 15 years, when all of the baby boomers hit that milestone. Advances in technology yielding longer life, combined with a shift away from the nursing home elder care model toward aging at home make this a critical time for developing home care policy. Among other things, as tech companies enter this space with online solutions that connect home care workers with seniors, the intersection of the gig economy and healthcare will require some guidance.

As we've reported, a number of funders are paying keen attention to labor issues within healthcare. This is one of the fastest growing areas of employment for lower skilled workers, yet these jobsparticularly home care jobs—often pay poorly and offer little opportunity for upward mobility. Raising pay and building stronger career ladders in healthcare jobs are key to expanding economic opportunity overall, particularly for young people of color. Those funders with an eye on this area include Atlantic Philanthropies, Kellogg, and the California Wellness Foundation. 


Naturally, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is paying attention. We write often about the foundation's efforts to improve the "culture of health" in the United States by investing in human capital and health research. Now, RWJF is stepping into the online healthcare market with a $400,000, one-year grant for the Good Work Code, an initiative launched late last year by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

The Good Work Code's primary objective with this grant is to raise standards for caregivers, which is especially important at a moment when the online, on-demand market for home health workers is exploding. "We're seeking to influence the conversation so that we don’t see the same challenges that workers face in the offline part of the industry move to the online part of the industry without any kind of intervention," Palak Shah, social innovations director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told Inside Philanthropy. "We're aiming to provide a guidepost for what could work for all of the parties as these new business models in the tech part of the economy emerge." 

According to NDWA Director Ai-jen Poo, home care workers are the fastest growing occupation. But with an average annual salary of $15,000, they're also some of the most undervalued skilled employees in our economy. "We're trying to leverage the power and the initiative of the technology sector to ensure that the jobs that get created in this growing and critical field of healthcare are actually good jobs," Poo told Inside Philanthropy.

This work is part of a bigger push in recent years to raise U.S. labor standards and is backed by a number of major funders, particularly the Ford Foundation. Ford gave the National Domestic Workers Alliance $1.6 million in 2014, and has also backed the push improve the situation of restaurant workers. Meanwhile, Ford has heavily bankrolled the National Law Employment Project, which spotlights lax labor standards and the exploitation of key groups of marginalized workers. 

Good Work Code is an interesting addition to the landscape because it operates at the convergence of long-time concerns about low-income workers with newer fears that the Uber-ized gig economy is, as Steven Hill argues in a new book, a "raw deal" that is "screwing American workers."


RWJF's new grant will allow the Good Work Code to investigate the burgeoning online market for care work, which will involve figuring out how to determine if companies are creating good jobs and how to improve wages and conditions. Poo and Shah are seeing an emerging trend of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who want to make positive changes for workers in the tech economy. Twelve companies signed on to the Good Work Code in 2015, committing to the Code's eight values of safety, stability & flexibility, transparency, shared prosperity, a livable wage, inclusion & input, support & connection, and growth & development. They hope to double or triple the number of companies in 2016.

"We're really grateful for this grant opportunity from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation," said Poo. "Foundations like Robert Wood Johnson that have been willing to take risks with us and innovate have been critical in opening up new strategies for social change. That to me feels really important."