What the Conversation Around the "Great Resignation" Leaves Out

You can't talk about labor without talking about care work.

new york city reopens as most pandemic restrictions are lifted
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While her high school classmates joined clubs, Jennifer Lagemann, 23, joined the ranks of unpaid caretakers. She lived with her grandmother, mother, and aunt. They immigrated to America from Vietnam in 1992. When Lagemann’s grandmother had a stroke, her family couldn’t find out what care her grandmother was eligible to receive. Lagemann says that they “didn’t know where to go. We didn’t have existing knowledge of what was available.” If they had known how to navigate America’s Byzantine benefits system, they would have discovered that not much was available. Instead, they relied on each other. Her mother and aunt worked outside the home, and Lagemann rushed home every day after school to care for her grandmother.

Lagemann’s care work continued into adulthood. She worked as an administrator at a home care agency where she was overwhelmed by “so much red tape and so much bureaucracy. I saw so many people who needed more care than they were eligible for.” In March 2020 a week after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, Lagemann’s work hours were cut in half. Her bills remained the same. She found a low-wage weekend certified nursing assistant (CNA) job at a nursing home an hour from where she lived.

The nursing home where Lagemann worked was severely understaffed like many nursing homes during the first wave of COVID. She was one of three CNAs. Lagemann was left alone with patients made aggressive by dementia. She worked through unpaid meal breaks, which were still deducted from her paycheck. Only 4 foot 11, she was expected to move patients who required mobility tools like Hoyer lifts on her own. After a final dangerous interaction with a patient, she told her supervisor she had to leave. She passed an unattended senior sitting in a wheelchair. He was wearing a WWII veteran’s hat. He smiled at her and yelled, “Have a nice day!” She started crying. She got into her car, drove away, and didn’t go back.

The lack of care for care workers has led to an ongoing labor shortage.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, one in five health care workers has left their job. They’ve been joined in leaving by a historic number of low-wage workers in other industries. Anthony Klotz, a professor at Texas A&M University, predicted this wave of quits, calling it the Great Resignation. When a title is written before the story, it’s always going to drive the narrative. Most analyses of the Great Resignation begin with the premise that it is a trend about worker choice. There’s not a lot of agreement about what their choices mean. Some say the Great Resignation proves the market works for workers, as they are choosing to leave poorly paying jobs for better-paying jobs. An argument that is strictly true but often neglects to mention that those better-paying jobs still pay well below a living wage. Others argue the high number of quits simply proves a high level of laziness. In a recent TINYpulse survey, one in five executives agreed with the statement, “No one wants to work.” A statement belied by the fact that most workers are not dropping out of the labor force.

The people who left the workforce often cite unpaid care work as the reason for quitting paid work. Others blame care scarcity in America. A childcare worker labor shortage means fewer parents, especially mothers, at work. It’s difficult to chalk the care worker shortage up to workers having more choices. Most childcare workers are not paid enough to pay for their own children’s childcare. What choice is there in poverty?

None of those narratives tell Lagemann’s story. She didn’t have a higher-paying job lined up when she fled the nursing facility. She’d been so determined to keep working she took a second job at a distant nursing facility. And her story isn’t really about care scarcity. Care is the one thing that’s abundant in Lagemann’s story. Her mother and aunt cared. Her grandmother cared. Lagemann certainly cared. And the man who shouted after her as she left the nursing home cared. Care isn’t scarce in her story; it is under pressure from capitalism’s exploitation.

When a title is written before the story, it’s always going to drive the narrative.

The pandemic was a sharp tug at an already unraveling care crisis. Lagemann now works as a senior care writer and advocate. When I ask her what care work in America needs, she sighs. “Care needs change so quickly,” she says. “A lot of it has to happen at a policy level. But politicians don’t want to lead on a platform of caregiving.”

With a lack of politicians willing to lead, caretakers are left to fall. Caretakers in America are overwhelmingly women. During the pandemic, they left the workforce and have not returned. It’s a Great Caretaker Resignation. It feels new, but it’s not. The Great Caretaker Resignation has been happening for 20 years. Women’s labor force participation peaked in 1999 at 60 percent. Women between the ages of 25 and 54, “the mother years,” have “participated in the labor force less since 1999,” with a participation rate drop of 3 percent between 2000 and 2015. But that doesn’t mean those women aren’t laboring. Caretakers who leave the labor force are not resigning from work, because care work is work. They are counted as dropping out of the labor force because our economic system was designed to exclude care work so it can exploit it. Usually, we name unique forms of capitalism after their value creation hub: managerial capitalism, mass production capitalism, financial capitalism. The dominant form of American capitalism should be named after its value extraction hub: care work. Care work capitalism captures value from care workers while disenfranchising them as stakeholders.

This is not some great secret. When politicians run on the need to recognize women’s care work, they’re acknowledging the disenfranchisement of care workers. When a politician stops paid leave or universal childcare legislation, they’re conceding the market’s right to care work. Senator Joe Manchin was defending care work capitalism when he helped derail Build Back Better’s childcare and paid-leave proposals. He joins a long list of defenders.

With a lack of politicians willing to lead, caretakers are left to fall.

In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act. The legislation provided federally subsidized childcare, with the poorest households receiving care for free. The bill had bipartisan support, a particularly jarring fact in the wake of Build Back Better failure. Former president Richard Nixon vetoed the bill on the advice of White House aide Pat Buchanan. Buchanan wrote the veto, which framed subsidized childcare as the first toddling step to communism. In 1975, a similar bill was knocked down by Christian fundamentalists who shared flyers in church about the childcare-to-communism pipeline. Buchanan helped make the defense of care work capitalism a conservative Christian’s duty, but his veto was a variation on an old theme.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the first American capitalists created a narrative we still live in today. 19th-century men divided the home from the economy. They created a domestic sphere, a walled-off space where women were always laboring but never productive.

Unpaid care work is still held in a sphere apart from the American production boundary.[1] It is not included in GDP. If we included the unpaid production that takes place in the home and the community to our yearly gross domestic product, researchers say it would grow by at least 23 percent, or more than $4 trillion. In March 2020, The New York Times reported, “If American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion” in 2019. That number can only have gone up since the pandemic started. The strain put on care work during the pandemic is a feature of capitalism, not a bug. Economists won’t value social reproduction, because they acknowledge the market’s rights to care work. This is a commons problem.

Capitalism needs care work, but it can’t value it.

The tragedy of the commons is a modern economic theory that says a resource held in common will be exhausted by inefficient use and a lack of innovation. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics for her work disproving the theory. She demonstrated that communities always have and still can manage common finite resources sustainably. We don’t seem to cite her much in America.

Care work is an abundant resource managed by social systems. Caretakers are commoners doing common work. Care is abundant, but like many resources right now, it is being strained by markets. Care needs keeping if we are all going to be sustained by it. The problem is that capitalism has no interest in keeping things it cannot own. When confronted with a commons, capitalism tries to privatize it.

Kristi Johns never planned to stay home full-time with her kids. She'd just completed her doctorate in education while she was a visiting scholar at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She was starting a new job when the pandemic hit. Her job evaporated, and her high-risk child’s need for isolation became concrete. Her two children have been remote schooling since March 2020. She’s taken on an unpaid postdoc position so she can keep the school affiliation that gives her access to materials for her research. In between managing remote school days, Johns studies the way higher education fails caregivers. “Take business schools, they need to be the flagship of change we want to see in industry, but if they are harmful to caregivers, if they only cater to the generationally wealthy, they’ll filter out anyone who has the experience to make change,” she says. She saw how brutal that filtering out could be in her husband’s MBA program.

Though there were a proportionate number of fathers in the program, mothers were severely underrepresented. Business schools are built on top of the structurally subordinate domestic sphere. One woman entered the program with a three-month-old child. Without a partner to help with childcare, she couldn’t attend the constant mandatory evening events. Just a month into the program, the woman was on the verge of being forced out of it. When her baby was four months old, grandparents took over caretaking duties. They lived a plane ride away, and the mother visited as often as she could. A tragedy of the privatization of the commons.

Care needs keeping if we are all going to be sustained by it.

There are ways to protect the care commons. All of them are universal. A universal basic income could provide unconditional security for those who care and need care. Universal health care would acknowledge everyone qualifies for care. Universal paid leave would allow parents to care for babies. Universal childcare would allow parents to do work outside of care work. Every solution to the care crisis requires us to move to more common ground.

Some people are trying to reinforce the borders around the domestic sphere instead. Blake Masters, COO of Thiel Capital, is running for senate on a platform of returning America to an economy where a family can be supported by a single income. It would only be a return for some. A one-wage home where the domestic sphere is firmly subordinate depends on the disenfranchisement of paid and unpaid care workers. When the domestic sphere was first enclosed, middle- and upper-income white women overwhelmingly stayed home. This arrangement depended on the underpaid labor of lower-income women. Poor, single white women entered the labor force at a greater rate than ever before by the end of the 19th century. Single and unmarried Black women were overwhelmingly overrepresented in the labor force. In the 1800s, married Black women were more likely to be in dual-income houses because of labor market discrimination against Black men.

Care work may build capitalism’s heaven, but it’s never going to inherit it.

In care work capitalism, dual-income homes are still often dependent on disenfranchisement. While white feminists lean in, many outsource care work without ensuring care rights. The global care chain follows the flow of care workers from poor countries to wealthy countries. Care workers moved by the global care chain are usually underpaid, and sometimes abused. They have little recourse. They are migrants in foreign countries where they have no claim to citizen’s rights. This growing trend of care extractivism removes the care worker from their environment and removes rights from the care worker.

Care work may build capitalism’s heaven, but it’s never going to inherit it. We’ve entered an era of renewed voter suppression laws. Labor rights and voting rights cannot be separated. So what would it look like to put care work first?

While the push for better wages and work protections must continue, some scholars critique the assumption that waged work should be tied to security. In their paper, “Work in the Intersections: A Black Feminist Disability Framework,” Moya Bailey and Izetta Autumn Mobley ask, “How might we restructure society itself if we could meet our needs without working jobs, however dignified and humane they might become?” The American idea of security being tied to a wage is ableist. It’s also anti-care. Nina Banks, a professor of economics at Bucknell University, writes that “discriminatory public policies have reinforced the view of Black women as workers rather than as mothers.” A CEPR demographic profile of frontline workers shows that childcare workers are disproportionately Black women. Black women are still expected to perform underpaid care work for other people’s children, while a devaluation of Black motherhood leads to higher Black maternal mortality rates.

Jesi Taylor, a grad student and waste educator, knows the cost of Black motherhood in America while chronically ill. They care for their child while working with organizers to improve their community. Money is always tight. They say they feel guilty when they have to rest. They say, “I genuinely love the work I do, thankfully, but I still struggle to survive and thrive. I’ve never had a stable work-life balance before, and I won’t ever have that under the current conditions.”

Industrial capitalists didn’t wait for the old world to pass away before beginning their new one. Maybe we don’t have to wait either. At the end of my interview with Taylor, they share the prologue required for worlds created by and through care. It’s the beginning of a story I’d like to live in.

“More than anything else, I’m committed to creating and building and collaborating and healing and learning with the people and beings I share this planet with. The majority of us are deprived of rest. The majority of us are being exploited. The majority of us have no choice but to work for employers who exploit us. The pandemic made that clear. But it also shed light on the importance of coming together to imagine new worlds, new ways of being. That’s where my heart is.”

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