Ai-Jen Poo says she represents a growing number of women who do the work that makes all manner of other types of work possible. From housekeepers to nannies and adult caregivers, her work centers on the estimated 1 to 2 million domestic workers in the U.S.
This morning, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Poo was selected as a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship. She will receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000, paid out over the next five years.
The foundation says fellows are selected through a rigorous process that involves thousands of experts and anonymous nominators.
Poo, 40, has been organizing immigrant women workers since 1996 and today she’s most recognized for starting the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She’s an activist working to change laws and when successful, she helps hundreds of thousands women whose work is often hidden behind the walls of private homes.
"Domestic workers are the most visible invisible workforce, each and everyone of us is connected to somebody who worked as a domestic worker or who does today do care work," Poo told Time magazine in 2012.
Poo is widely recognized as leading the campaign that pushed New York state officials to make the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights a law in 2010. The bill was the first of its kind in the nation and it offered protections to the estimated 200,000 domestic workers in the state .
Before the bill, housekeepers, caretakers and nannies were excluded from almost every major labor law in the country—with the exception of minimum wage protections. New York’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights gave domestic workers the rights that most others have had for decades, like overtime pay after 40 hours of work in a week and a day off every seven days. It also protects workers from from sexual and racial harassment.
Poo's alliance has gone on to pass worker protections in California, Hawaii and Massachusetts.
Her organization has also offered insight into previously unknown trends about domestic workers in the U.S. In 2012, Poo partnered with two research institutions and surveyed 2,086 domestic workers in 14 metropolitan areas. The report, the first of it’s kind, found 23 percent of workers surveyed are paid below the state minimum wage. It also revealed that only 4 percent of domestic workers receive employer-provided insurance.
The MacArthur “geniuses” announced today join 897 other Fellows the program has recognized since it began in 1981.
Poo told NBC News she plans to use the grant to create a policy fellowship that will allow domestic workers to work for the National Domestic Workers Alliance “so that they can better impact the broad set of policies that affect their lives.”