Mar. 16, 2012
Domestic Workers Deserve Basic Rights
Domestic Workers Deserve Basic Rights
Every morning, nearly 200,000 workers in California report for work at individuals’ homes. These workers, largely immigrant women of color, are entrusted with the tremendously important and often difficult work of caring for young children, the elderly and the disabled. Many household employers do well by their workers. But many do not, and without clear guidelines for the minimum protections an employer should be providing, these workers often lose out.
Domestic workers and the California Domestic Workers Coalition have been organizing to pass a bill in Sacramento that would guarantee them basic workplace protections. The provisions in this bill, while modest in scope, would have an enormous impact on their lives. All they are waiting on now is for the Legislature to pass AB 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would ensure that all domestic workers receive more of the basic protections that other workers in California already receive. These protections include giving nannies and caregivers short meal and rest breaks, payment for overtime work after eight hours a day, and twice-a-month pay stubs that list workers’ hours and rates of pay to make sure workers are being paid correctly.
AB 889 also addresses concerns particular to this industry. For example, live-in domestic workers and those on duty for 24 hours or more would be guaranteed at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep under adequate resting conditions. And those who work more than five hours would be allowed to use their employers’ kitchens to prepare their own food.
These are modest, practical proposals that extend fundamental human rights protections and basic decency to some of the most isolated and vulnerable members of California’s workforce.
The fundamental idea underlying the bill is that domestic work, while it is performed in a person’s home, is real work and should be compensated and treated as such. The notion that regulating work performed in an individual’s home is an invasion of privacy, as some contend, was laid to rest long ago, when both the federal and state governments conferred certain protections on some household employees. AB 889 builds on this precedent, extending to domestic workers minimal protections that are reasonable to expect of all employers. The bottom line is that when we decide to employ others in our homes, we need to follow the basic rules of the road required of all employers.
Some of the pushback to AB 889 seems to be about giving nannies and caregivers meal breaks, with critics falsely claiming that employers will have to hire a second domestic worker so that the first one can leave for lunch. This is simply not true. The bill allows for on-duty meal breaks when the nature of the work prevents the worker from leaving the premises.
This bill is long-overdue recognition that domestic work – an industry where women work in isolation, often without formal employment agreements or fixed workplace rules – is especially in need of the most basic protections that apply to all workers. The nature of this work – isolating, intimate and informal – requires standards to ensure that workers are treated fairly.
The early history of domestic work has been one of exclusion from basic labor standards. As the National Domestic Workers Alliance notes, when Congress passed a federal minimum wage law in 1938, it acquiesced to the demands of segregationist senators who insisted that domestic workers and agricultural workers – who were, at that time, largely African-American – be excluded. Not until the early 1970s were domestic workers even given the right to be paid at least the federal minimum wage.
In short, there’s nothing unprecedented or radical about what this bill would do. Overtime, workers’ comp, meal and rest breaks, pay stubs – all are modest, standard and important workplace protections. It bears repeating that the homes in which these women work – while they may be small, intimate and informal – are their workplaces. It’s not too much to ask that these women – who provide invaluable care for the people we love most, and whose work in our homes makes our work outside the home possible – receive the protections most other workers take for granted. Hundreds of thousands of domestic workers are waiting for the Legislature to acknowledge this simple fact and pass this important bill.
Gebreselassie is a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.
Filed under: Domestic/Homecare Workers