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When Work Becomes Family: The Case of Low-Wage Caregivers

Work and Family in the New Economy

ISBN: 978-1-78441-630-0, eISBN: 978-1-78441-629-4

Publication date: 17 February 2015



This chapter revisits a debate about the relationship between work and family and the conditions under which workers believe their jobs in the new economy offer an escape from families.


In contrast to prior research, the chapter uses multiple methods, including a random sample survey, intensive interviews with 221 respondents, and 615 hours of observations at eight sites in the health care sector.


The chapter shows that low-wage women nursing assistants – more than those in other health care occupations – develop strong connections to coworkers and patients whom they come to talk about as “family.” It finds that more than doctors, nurses, or EMTs, the CNAs seek an escape from home and a pull to people at work not only because they develop strong relations on the job and have more inclusive notions of family, but also because they face more difficulties at home. These difficulties at home are created in part by the unpredictable schedules and low wages offered by their jobs. These make home life more difficult, which paradoxically leads them to turn to their jobs.

Research limitations/implications

The analysis and findings show the ongoing power of unequal social relations – organized around class and gender and their intersection – in shaping the recursive relationship of jobs and families.




We gratefully acknowledge research support provided by the National Science Foundation (grant # SES-0549817 and SES-0959712), the Sloan Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT), the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), the University of Massachusetts Future of Work Project, and Conti Award. We are grateful to Mary Ann Clawson, Jill Crocker, Lisa Dodson, Lisa Harvey, Rosanna Hertz, Arlie Hochschild, James Jasper, Margaret Nelson, Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Rhacel Parrenas, Natalia Sarkisian, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, and Robert Zussman for comments on earlier versions of this argument.


Gerstel, N. and Clawson, D. (2015), "When Work Becomes Family: The Case of Low-Wage Caregivers", Work and Family in the New Economy (Research in the Sociology of Work, Vol. 26), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 151-175.



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