Government Ignores the Value of Unpaid Domestic Labor


“What they call love, we call unwaged work.”
— Silvia Federici, Italian feminist activist

When Wanda García, 57, found out that her son Christian, now 24, had cerebral palsy, she made a difficult decision: she left her job as a medical secretary to dedicate herself completely to taking care of him. The two weeks she was hospitalized for preeclampsia before giving birth — at 33 weeks pregnant — and the 40 days Christian spent in the neonatal intensive care unit were just a hint of what this family from the northern town of Florida, Puerto Rico, would go through.

When he was just days old, Christian was infected in the hospital with a bacteria that lodged in his blood. Two weeks after being discharged, Wanda and her husband had to take Christian back to the hospital where he was diagnosed with an urinary infection. The doctors recommended several studies and tests that revealed the diagnosis.

“The doctor told us that the baby wasn’t going to talk or walk, that he was going to be like a vegetable, but I didn’t believe that,” Wanda said in a phone call. “You wipe your tears and move on. I left my job to deal with our new situation.”

Wanda has been outside of what the government calls “the labor force” for more than 20 years, during which she has practically not taken a break for a single day. Her life has revolved around taking her son to appointments with 12 different specialists and his multiple therapies and medical interventions. He sometimes has as many as three appointments in one day, so Wanda gets up early, cooks for the whole family, packs a bag of food and clothes for Christian, and spends the day going from one appointment to another.

“For a year now, I’ve dedicated myself to better manage all of that because I get too tired. In my situation, I get more tired,” she said and explained that, naturally, she no longer has the same energy that she enjoyed when her son was a small kid.

Wanda pulled her son out of school at age 15 out of frustration with the public education system that failed to provide a stable educational assistant for Christian while he was enrolled.

“I homeschooled him for five years. He learned to read, which the teachers said he would never do. He learned his times tables. He knows how to write his first name, last name, address, and social security number. He knows how to use his cell and laptop,” Wanda said with pride for having defied what that first doctor foretold.

At the foot of Cerro Mime in Orocovis, Lillian Figueroa, 58, moves towards the adjustable bed and tenderly tucks in her father Juan, 88, and an Alzheimer’s patient. She thinks about the snack and dinner that she must prepare for her mother, María, 80, a diabetes patient, and that she will soon have to give her the third insulin shot of the day.

Lillian has been living with her parents for two years so she could be their full-time caregiver. It was a decision she made after feeling too overwhelmed by traveling from her house to her parents’ house every day to care for them. “I lived nearby, but I was exhausted with the comings and goings,” she said, sitting on the sofa in her living room in front of an image of the Holy Family and another of Jesus Christ with a serene face.

“This is a marathon. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible,” says Lillian as she crosses her hands, and the sound of a gorge can be heard in the background. “When I can access the internet from my tablet, I look for information. I like to look for a lot of information about how Alzheimer’s disease progresses, how we, caregivers, must take care of ourselves, although sometimes, let me tell you that there’s no time, I even forget to eat. I don’t have a chance,” she said.

Wanda and Lillian don’t know each other, but something binds them: they do unpaid domestic and care work. These are tasks that millions of people — especially women and girls — do around the world, but they aren’t considered part of the formal economy and are not paid. However, these daily tasks sustain life itself because, what would become of these people if they did not have their care? Who would be responsible for feeding them? Who would pay for those services? How much would it cost to pay for these tasks?

How Much are Unpaid Domestic and Care Jobs Worth?

Unpaid domestic and care work includes two types of activities for which a person does not get paid: direct care of babies, children, adults and people with functional diversity or an illness, and indirect care activities, such as cleaning, cooking, or running errands.

This work, however, is not accounted for within the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) anywhere in the world, although it supports the global economy, since this calculation (GDP) generally only includes activities that involve monetary transactions.

Lillian Figueroa's day, who is in charge of her parents' care, begins at 6:00 a.m. every day. The first tasks she takes on are preparing breakfast and administering insulin to her mother, a diabetes patient.
Photos by Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

In Puerto Rico, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 223 (SB 223) that sought to quantify unpaid work, but Governor Pedro Pierluisi vetoed it in January 2023. This bill would have shed light on the magnitude of unpaid work, the disparity between genders of those who do it and how much it represents in the economy.

According to the Governor’s Press Secretary, Sheila Angleró Mojica, Pierluisi “was unable” to sign the bill on the recommendation of the Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH, in Spanish), which is already “doing a related survey that’s paid for with federal funds and whose topics cannot be changed without authorization.”

In written statements, Angleró told Todas and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) that “there are no funds for a local survey” and that federal funds cannot be used for purposes other than those assigned. She argued that the bill addressed work “outside the workplace or by people who aren’t part of the workforce” and probed into the “private lives of respondents.”

However, the Worker Group Survey published by the DTRH barely mentions what percentage works in “domestic jobs” and does not include unpaid care, which is a “structural factor of gender inequality,” according to UN Women.

Official statistics on labor productivity exclude questions that would help know how many workers have children, or how motherhood, fatherhood or caregiving reduce the time available to maintain a paid job. On the contrary, the only analysis dedicated to this issue is on women’s participation in the labor force in Puerto Rico. In 2022, the publication implied that women’s low labor participation, compared to men, was due to women’s availability when it said: “Despite the fact that they constitute more than half of the population of working age, less than 50% of them participate or are available for the production of goods and services in the economy.”

Lillian Figueroa is in charge of administering the medicines that each of her parents must take. Between cooking and taking care of them, she does some housekeeping.
Photos by Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

These unpaid domestic and caregiver tasks can also result in women having less time to study, have fun, participate in politics, or dedicate to their self-care. They also affect their insertion and growth in the formal workplace and leave them relegated to informal work.

In the case of Wanda, one of the protagonists of this story, she always hoped to go back to formal work. “My husband told me that our kid was going to get better and that I was going to go back to work. But that never happened.”

One of the Groups Contributing the Most to the GDP

In Latin America, these unpaid jobs represent between 15% and 26% of the GDP, according to the study “Valorización económica del trabajo no remunerado de los hogares” (Economic Worth of Unpaid Household Work”) by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC in Spanish). Meanwhile, in the United States, it is estimated that GDP would increase by 26% if these tasks were included, according to a study cited by the Women’s Policy Research Institute. In some countries, the figure could reach 40% of GDP, the International Labor Organization reported.

Considering these figures, if the value of unpaid domestic and caregiver work in Puerto Rico were estimated, economist Martha Quiñones Domínguez said it could represent one of the segments with the greatest contribution to the GDP, which the Planning Board estimated at a total of $113.5 billion in 2022. It even projected that it could contribute more than $15 billion to the economy, which would make it a sector surpassed only by manufacturing, which represents 46% of the GDP (or $52.4 billion). It would be above sectors such as real estate and rentals (16%) or retail (6%).

Globally, the value of unpaid caregiver work performed by women aged 15 and older stands at around $10.8 trillion each year, which is equivalent to three times the size of the global technology industry, according to a 2020 Oxfam study.

Between 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., Lillian prepares her mom's snack and takes care of her dad, who is bedridden and an Alzheimer's patient.
Photo by Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Uncounted caregiver crisis

The GDP is a macroeconomic measure that considers the total value of the goods and services that a country produces at a given time. Although it is used to observe a country’s economic evolution, it casts aside a fundamental aspect: unpaid domestic and caregiver work.

“There’s a lot of oppression against women that aren’t exposed or understood because the only thing that’s seen as important is work that’s paid and not work that isn’t paid for,” said Quiñones Domínguez. “If you make it visible, it causes a problem for capitalism that feeds on that invisible work because, if they were to pay women for that work, then it would be more expensive and the profits would be less for the capitalist system,” she added.

The economist believes there’s a “caregiver crisis” in Puerto Rico — which has also been reported in the United States — because of the high costs of care centers for children and adults. The crisis is due to the burnout that some caregivers can suffer from not having a break from these duties, due to the lack of social and governmental support, and due to the invisibility of these tasks, which affect women more because they are feminized tasks.

What Caregivers go Through

“Dealing with the government is the worst ,” Wanda said about the greatest difficulties she faces as a caregiver. “They don’t have anything for them [people with functional diversity], they don’t give you anything. You leave work to dedicate yourself full time to them, but they don’t help mom either. It’s like being blacklisted. They put them in a corner and forget about them.”

She said although she tried to be her son’s teaching assistant, the Department of Education (DE) told her that this was a conflict of interest.

Jorge Salcedo, press officer for the DE, said “there are exceptional cases” in which a mother can be a teaching assistant when the minor’s diagnosis requires priority care provided by their mother.

Wanda is also frustrated with the Vocational Rehabilitation Administration, (ARV, in Spanish) the agency responsible for integrating people with functional diversity into the workforce. She says she was promised a new wheelchair, but it ended up in nothing. They also couldn’t get help finding a job for Christian.

“That’s the problem here. After they turn 21, these young people are left in limbo. There’s nothing. No work. They don’t seek them out. We can’t get equipment,” the mother added. The director of the ARV Services Office, María Benítez, did not comment on this case, but she promised the CPI that she would look into it.

Wanda doesn’t go out alone. She rarely participates in activities for herself. She does her shopping online. And the few times she goes to the beauty salon, she only goes to get a haircut so as not to incur more expenses. She has no friends, and her support network consists of her husband, her family, and the church she attends.

Lillian doesn’t take part in many activities on her own either, and since moving in with her parents two years ago, she hasn’t gone on vacation. She only goes out to medical appointments for her mental health treatment and for the free Zumba classes offered at the Jesús M. “Tito” Colón Coliseum in Orocovis, about a 20-minute drive from where she lives. This physical activity is her therapy, when she unfolds from a calm and quiet woman, to one who makes jokes and laughs out loud. When her car breaks down, she has no public transportation alternatives or taxis available, something common in mountain towns.

For Lillian, the most difficult thing about caring for her parents is seeing how they deteriorate, how it’s harder for them to do things that they could do before. She also has a hard time dealing with the family friction that diseases like Alzheimer’s can cause.

In addition to constant blackouts or water cuts, another difficulty in the Orocovis sector where they live is the ongoing disruption of internet and telephone service. Internet connections and cell phone signals can go out anytime there. Weeks before interviewing her, her father had fallen and she had to run to her uncle’s house, who is one of her neighbors, to call two of her five sisters for help.

“The two of them dealt with the ambulance. They went with him to the hospital, and I stayed with mami,” she recalled. Neither of her parents can be left unattended.

Lillian moved to her parents’ house in Orocovis to be able to take better care of them. She has a room where she only keeps her belongings, since she has to sleep in the same room as her father, an Alzheimer's patient, so she can take care of him during the nights and be able to respond quickly to any need that may arise.
Photo by Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The Myths of the Economy: From the GDP to Employment Surveys

Both the definition of the GDP — and its use to measure economic development and well-being — and how the workforce is calculated are some of the myths of economics, said feminist economists Cristina Carrasco (Chile) and Corina Rodríguez (Argentina) in the talk “The Economy Always Lied to Us. Let’s Dismantle Myths for the Revolution,” held within the framework of the Encuentro Plurinacional de Mujeres y Disidencias (“Plurinational Meeting of Women and Dissidents”) held in Bariloche, Argentina, in October of last year.

Carrasco said, “economics is pure ideology,” since it does not have a law or a theory that demonstrates an empirical approach. Rather, “they invent a definition” that fits what a certain group of economists wants to promote. For example, saying that the GDP is a country’s production “is a myth,” since it does not include other types of production such as unpaid domestic and caregiver work, farm work or volunteer work. This indicator neither considers population inequalities, the impact on natural resources or environmental harm, something that has been criticized for years.

Rodríguez explained that, in the case of Argentina, the narrative is that first the GDP must grow and then that growth will be distributed among the different social segments. However, in the 1990s the Argentine economy was growing, but so was unemployment. “The economy grows at the expense of worsening living conditions for people. (...) It seems to me that, as feminists, we must confront these narratives and reveal them. Show that this is a myth,” she said.

“The GDP may grow, but it doesn’t mean that the population will have greater well-being,” Carrasco insisted.

Puerto Rico’s Case in Figures

In Puerto Rico, the GDP grew 7% from 2021 to 2022 (from $106.4 billion to $113.6 billion), according to the Planning Board. However, in that period poverty also increased among the general population from 40.5% to 41.7%, while in those under 18 years, it went from 54.9% to 57.6%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Between 2021 and 2022, the percentage of women below the poverty level jumped from 42.6% to 43.8%, while that of men increased from 38.2% to 39.4%.

In contrast, between 2021 and 2022, Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate dropped from 7.9% to 6% and the labor participation rate rose from 42.6% to 43.4%, according to the study entitled Women’s participation in Puerto Rico’s labor force.

This study also indicates that, as of 2022, women represented 45.1% of the working group (537,000 of 1,191,000), that is, of employed and unemployed people looking for a job. This is a 28.2% increase from 1990, when there were 419,000 women in the workforce. Meanwhile, the participation rate of women stood at 36.6%, 5.2 percentage points higher than in 1990.

In 2022, 932,000 women were “outside the working group” and of these, 50.2% (almost 468,000) performed “domestic jobs.” In 1990, by comparison, 919,000 women were outside the working group, of which 83.5% (767,000) were housewives.

“They are housewives. They’re considered to be out of the labor force, but they’re working. They are within the working group, but the definition excluded them,” said Quiñones Domínguez.

In the case of men, in 2022 there were 619,000 (48.61%) outside the working group and of them 3% (20,000) were dedicated to “domestic jobs.”

Likewise, in Puerto Rico, homes with female heads of households represent 42% of the total, and of these, 57% are below the poverty rates, according to 2019 Census data.

This must be coupled with the fact that women dedicate on average more time than men to unpaid domestic and caregiver tasks. Although there is no published data in Puerto Rico in this regard, in the United States it was estimated that women dedicated an average of 4.5 hours a day to unpaid work, while men dedicated 2.78 hours, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Lack of Government Acknowledgement and Support

“Caregiving work isn’t acknowledged as work in Puerto Rico, nor is it valued by the government or the community in general,” according to the “Public Policies and Care Work in Puerto Rico,” report carried out by nonprofit organization Inter-Mujerse.

This report, created by attorneys Marilucy González Báez, Patricia Otón Olivieri, Yanira Reyes Gil and Esther Vicente, analyzes the public policies approved to date regarding domestic work and unpaid caregivers.

The document states that the government “doesn’t compile the necessary data” needed to review compliance with public policies related to paid caregiving work. Nor does it address “the need to redistribute care tasks” equitably in families, communities, and the government sector.

By the same token, the laws approved on caregiving leave people who perform this duty occasionally or informally deprived of labor rights, and almost completely ignore those who do it without pay. “This means that these people, mostly women, don’t have protection in case of illness, minimum wage, eight-hour workday, unemployment protection, breastfeeding or maternity leave, protection in old age (retirement) or vacations,” the report indicates.

The situation is exacerbated by “the austerity measures imposed by neoliberal policies promoted by the Fiscal Oversight Board and adopted by the government.” These have had the effect of making energy, drinking water, transportation, and garbage collection services more expensive or worse, “particularly affecting people who offer care services,” the report adds.

Those who perform domestic and caregiving work with an irregular immigration status are the worst off, as they are more exposed to abuse and poor compensation, and almost completely deprived of the protection of the law, according to the report.

In the case of Wanda and Lillian, they both receive certain government aid, but not enough and unrelated to the caregiving work they provide daily. Wanda receives nutritional assistance aid (food stamps) for Christian’s condition, but she never applied for social security benefits, although she worked for more than a decade as a secretary. She has access to the government’s Vital health plan, but if her husband adds more hours at his construction job, they’re threatened that it will be taken away.

Meanwhile, Lillian’s parents receive nutritional assistance aid (food stamps), and all three receive Social Security benefits, since the caregiver worked for years as a food supervisor at a Head Start center. Her mother receives it from her husband, since she was a housewife for years and she also took care of her grandchildren. In addition, a visit from a housekeeper — is provided by the municipality of Orocovis — for four hours twice a week. This person helps with cleaning and other tasks, but it is Lillian who takes care of her father. If it weren’t for her sister’s financial help, they would be in a more difficult situation.

Wanda acknowledged that the Municipality of Florida has given Christian some hours of work with its summer job program, while Lillian noted the importance of the moral support with Zumba classes and what a housekeeper represents for her situation, both services provided by the Municipality of Orocovis. Her parents also receive medications and a home visit from an internist.

Act 82 of 2023: an Attempt to Address Informal Care

There is a public policy on informal care in Puerto Rico: Act 82 of 2023. It creates the Bill of Rights for the Informal Caregiver, the Registry of Informal Caregivers in Puerto Rico, and the possibility for caregivers to request an adjustment in their work schedule without being penalized.

The Department of the Family (DF), responsible for enforcing Act 82, is in “the design and implementation phase” of the Registry of Informal Caregivers, “which will get started in mid-May 2024,” the head of the Administration for Families and Children (Adfan, in Spanish), Glenda Gerena Ríos, confirmed in written statements.

Gerena Ríos said a website will serve as “a centralized access point for informal caregivers, where they can register to receive information, access resources and connect with support services,” such as a caregiver assistance directory, relief services, counseling, and support groups.

It will also have training modules and educational workshops for informal caregivers and courses offered by the Pontifical Catholic University, said Gerena Ríos.

She also indicated that the Adfan’s legal division, “is working” on drafting the by-laws regarding the “responsibilities and rights of the informal caregivers support program,” which will define the rules and procedures associated with the law. She said that they have already received requests for guidance from informal caregivers.

What Does Their Future Hold?

At the end of the interview, Doña María, Lillian’s mother, serves coffee and cheese and sits down to talk. She is a tall woman with blue eyes and a charming smile. Lillian says it gives her strength to see her happy, to know that she is okay.

“I say that we’re the three musketeers, we’re always together and they’re very attached to me and I to them. I feel like what I’m doing is what I must do right now. Don’t go anywhere else because they’ll break down on me,” said Lillian from the couch. She knows that she cannot stop her mental health treatment and she will do her best to keep up by exercising. She knows that with diseases like Alzheimer’s, you need to take it one day at a time.

Doña María, Lillian’s mother, watches her saints, to whom she lights candles every day. At 5:00 p.m., when she has a TV signal, she watches mass from the living room of her home in Orocovis.
Fotos por Brandon Cruz González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

In the mountains of the town of Florida, Wanda sighs. “What’s going to happen when mom turns a certain age?” she asks herself, and she hears Christian say something that’s unintelligible. Wanda wants there to be alternatives for her son to work and socialize with other young people. She is teaching him to read better so he can take the driving test and learn to drive. She anxiously wants him to be independent.

“I know that, if we could get him a job, and I’m not saying that they have to give him a job from Monday to Friday for eight hours, four hours, even for three days, something where I can take him and he can move forward,” Wanda said in a tired voice. With her husband, they work to expand the house that they have been building little by little. They want to add a bathroom to Christian’s room so that he has more independence and make it appropriate for a wheelchair.

Calculadora de trabajo no remunerado

Calculate Unpaid Work

Click on the blank windows to enter the number of hours you spend on each task weekly.

Include light cleaning in homes in an organized manner.

Include care for minors at school, at home, and in care institutions. Includes dressing, feeding, bathing, and supervising during play. Does not include educators.

Include feeding, bathing, dressing, accompanying to the bathroom.

Include attention to the health conditions of an individual with disabilities or illness, following the recommendations of medical professionals.

Include planning, shopping, and cooking.