Domestic Workers Look to Extend Gains

A great, quick read on domestic workers’ legislative struggle.


Domestic Workers Look to Extend Gains

By Matthew Cunningham-Cook

Labor Notes
March 13, 2012

For 76 years domestic workers have been excluded from federal
labor law – from overtime and safety and health protections
in addition to collective bargaining rights. The exclusion
was no accident. When Congress debated the National Labor
Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, Southern representatives
insisted that two groups who were then a majority African
American be left out: farmworkers and domestic workers.

In the last two years, however, initiatives for domestic
workers’ rights have scored important victories. Activists in
New York state won passage of a Domestic Workers Bill of
Rights. Since November 2010 domestic workers receive time-
and-a-half after 40 hours per week (44 for live-in workers).
They are entitled to a day of rest every seven days, three
paid days of rest per year, and protection under the state’s
human rights legislation. The U.S. Department of Labor in
December announced plans to extend the minimum wage and time
and a half for overtime to 2 million home health aides and
personal assistants. (Other forms of domestic work such as
housework and childcare would continue unprotected.)

Last June, an international coalition of unions, human rights
organizations, and domestic worker organizations successfully
lobbied the International Labor Organization of the United
Nations to adopt a new convention. If ratified by member
countries, international law would guarantee domestic
workers’ right to freely associate, collectively bargain, and
be free from discrimination over citizenship status. And the
National Domestic Workers Alliance, a coalition of more than
70 groups, is working for a bill of rights in California,
modeled after the New York version, that would protect more
than 200,000 childcare workers, housekeepers, and caregivers.
They are anticipating a similar push in Massachusetts.

Matilde Vasquez, a live-out housecleaner in San Francisco who
belongs to the Women’s Collective, a group of domestic worker
activists, decided to get involved because of her own
family’s experience.

“My mom used to work as a domestic worker inside the house,”
Vasquez said, “where she cleaned and cooked for more than 10
years. In those days I saw her wake up at 5 and go to bed at
10 or 11, she didn’t have any vacation or insurance, and only
one day off per week. When I do this I think that I’m
honoring her.” Handshake Agreements

Right now, domestic work tends to be informal, with vague
arrangements between employer and employee. The bill Vasquez
is fighting for would entitle workers to the same wage and
hour protections as other California workers, except for
safety and health regulations. Meal and rest breaks, overtime
pay, reporting time pay, and worker’s compensation would
become mandatory.

California already has some overtime provisions for live-in
domestic workers but it mandates only 150 percent of the $8
minimum wage, rather than the worker’s actual pay. If a nanny
making $11 an hour works an extra hour, she gets only $12.
The new law would up that pay to $16.50. Domestic workers
would be legally entitled to uninterrupted sleep while
working 24-hour shifts or as live-in employees, and employers
could not charge for personal access to their kitchens.
Violations would incur a $50 fine, paid to the worker.

Vasquez says she wants not just the better pay and working
conditions but recognition that her work is valued. “We are
like any other employee,” she says. “This kind of job is nice
because you’re helping people; most people work a lot and
they don’t have time to get their house clean. Everything we
do is an art.”

Andrea Mercado, an organizer with the California coalition,
says the long-term goal is to bring domestic workers under
the NLRA. Experience with New Rights In New York, where the
bill has been in place for over a year, organizers are making
sure people are aware of their rights, says Luna Ranjit,
director of Adhikaar, a worker center for Nepali-speaking
people. They are working with the state Department of Labor
and getting members to reach out to others. “This sense of
support has allowed a lot of our members to negotiate for
better working conditions,” Ranjit says. Enforcement can be
difficult; the state Department of Labor is understaffed.
Ranjit says there is a long backlog of cases for all the
workers she aids, not just domestic workers.

But more than 60 workers have resolved claims against their
employers with the help of a legal clinic set up by the Urban
Justice Center and Domestic Workers United, the New York City
group that fought for the law. Activists now want to expand
their gains by winning collective bargaining rights for
domestic workers, bringing them under the New York State
Labor Relations Act. One plan is to create a public or
private entity that would function as the employer of
domestic workers and that a union could bargain with.

DWU member Christine Lewis said organizing for the 2010 bill
lifted the veil of silence around domestic work. “Women have
become aware and conscious that there is a law that stands
for them,” Lewis said. “All of a sudden everyone was sharing
stories; people weren’t afraid any more.”

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