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The outsourcing of housework is on the rise—and it's creating a shift both inside of the home and out

Written by:
May 13, 2024
Photo illustration by Stacker // Canva

This story originally appeared on Hampr and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

The outsourcing of housework is on the rise—and it's creating a shift both inside of the home and out

Groceries delivered to your door with the tap of a button. Meal kits with pre-portioned ingredients sent at recurring intervals straight to your house. Laundry picked up and dropped off, clean and neatly folded.

The outsourced housework market has increased dramatically over the years and shows no signs of plateauing. Despite people spending more time at home than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, services like grocery delivery saw massive upticks in use due to the health concerns associated with going out to the store, and numbers have remained strong even as pandemic-related restrictions have ended.

hampr consulted with industry experts, scholars, and domestic workers' rights organizations to find out more about the rise of outsourcing housework and its impacts on society.

At its best, outsourcing household chores and caregiving responsibilities can free up valuable time, allow for career growth and opportunities, and even increase women's earning power. However, issues of access and equitability around outsourcing beg the question: Is outsourcing widening existing disparities in wealth and opportunity?

Outsourcing: an 'imperfect' solution to the challenge of doing it all

One reason for the popularity—and for many, the necessity—of outsourcing housework in the U.S. could be the lack of federal paid parental leave policies and subsidized childcare, according to Leslie Forde, the founder and CEO of Mom's Hierarchy of Needs, a company focused on supporting well-being for time-harried mothers.

The U.S. ranks last among developed countries for its paid parental leave policy, and mothers spend an average of 12.7% of their wages on early childcare, according to a report from Common Cents Mom. Meanwhile, further north, Canadians can take as much as 69 weeks of leave shared between parents on top of a 15-week maternity leave.

"At the core, the systems of work are not well set up for caregivers and parents, but also our public policy infrastructure here in the United States is not set up well for it," Forde told Stacker in an interview. This forces many families to pay heftily for childcare or seek help with other domestic work like cleaning or grocery shopping.

Research shows a link between increased happiness and having more time, not necessarily more money. Outsourcing housework and childcare is one way for busy parents to regain precious time, leading to overall greater well-being. It can also allow both partners in two-parent households to focus on their careers. This setup can particularly benefit women, who are more likely to perform housework and childcare responsibilities, often at the expense of their earning power and career growth. Please note that the data from Gallup and the Bureau of Labor Statistics on which these statements are based were collected using a binary understanding of sex and gender, making the proper inclusion of gender-expansive people difficult.

The conditions of modern life make "doing it all"—being a perfect parent, a career-oriented worker, and a person with a fulfilling social life—virtually impossible, especially for women.

According to Forde, this situation means a parent needs to make eliminations or outsource, perhaps to a spouse or grandparent. "You have to find some version of a village that enables it to happen for you, and outsourcing has become the answer," albeit, Forde added, "an imperfect one."

Having the money to buy back time is a vital part of the accessibility of outsourcing

If time is money, as the saying goes, then money is time—especially when paying to offload housework and childcare. Access to outsourcing things like cleaning or after-school care often requires financial resources, which means wealthier families and individuals have an advantage: Not only can they pay to get time back, but they can also grow their wealth by having the flexibility to take on more work responsibilities and access, in turn, better benefits, including paid parental leave.

On the other hand, families with fewer financial resources—disproportionately people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, according to Forde—have a harder time accessing outsourcing services. Lower-wage earners are also less likely to have flexibility in their jobs and access to benefits like health care, paid sick time, and paid parental leave, putting them in the position of needing to outsource more than other workers.

A crucial part of juggling parenting and work responsibilities for all families, but particularly for lower-income ones, is having the support of extended family, friends, and other community members who can help with childcare or household tasks.

"There's much more intergenerational living for those of us who are from immigrant communities," Forde said. "For a lot of families of color, for a lot of parents, just having proximity to grandparent care or to siblings or to aunties and people who know them so well…it doesn't have a financial string attached—it's really just people who love you and want the best for you who are helping you make it work."

For many domestic workers, a lack of benefits and low wages can induce a 'vicious cycle'

Among the workers who often lack benefits, flexible hours, and higher wages are the domestic workers who make outsourcing housework possible.

Domestic workers—of which non-Hispanic Black, non-Hispanic Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Hispanic women together make up more than half, according to the Economic Policy Institute—have historically been left out of workers' rights policies and protections.

When the U.S. first legislated workers' rights protections at the federal level in the 1930s, domestic workers and farmers—many of whom were Black—were excluded to garner Southern lawmakers' support for the policy. To date, domestic and farm workers are still not included in federal workers' protections, and only 11 states and Washington D.C., as well as a couple of major cities, have passed domestic workers bills of rights.

The lack of federal protections for domestic workers today is a callback to that racist policy decision nearly 100 years ago. "That legacy of slavery is still very, very much with us today," Blithe Riley, the senior communications director at Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, told Stacker in an interview.

In the absence of federal labor protections, domestic workers like house cleaners, nannies, and babysitters face little to no paid leave and frequently do not even have written work agreements with their employers. Part of what helps these challenges persist for domestic workers today is the continued cultural perception that the home isn't a workplace, according to Riley.

"Work that happens in the home isn't seen as real work; women's work isn't real work. And that attitude, rooted in sexism and racism, becomes internalized and systemic," Riley said.

As a result, domestic workers who are also mothers or caretakers to aging parents are stuck in what Forde called a "vicious cycle": "They might be paid to help a family that has the financial means to outsource child care, but they themselves may not be in a position…to have their own child care addressed in a reasonable way," she said.

While federal protections would likely make the largest-scale difference for domestic workers, there are steps individual employers who want to outsource housework can take to ensure they're implementing fair labor practices in their own homes, Riley said.

One is having written work agreements or contracts and clear communication so both parties are on the same page—templates for written work agreements are available. Another is making sure workers have paid time off, including sick days, vacation days, and holidays. Finally, paying workers a fair, family-sustaining wage is perhaps the most direct way employers can support domestic workers, Riley said.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.

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