Hartford Courant: Domestic Workers Need Wage, Rules Rights

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour is a hit with voters, with more than 70 percent of the state’s residents in support. But many of Connecticut’s 40,000 domestic workers would be left out, and wouldn’t benefit from the wage increase they desperately need.

At least not yet. A bill that would establish a task force to study the working conditions of Connecticut’s domestic workers is before the General Assembly.

Domestic workers and their families are often underpaid and cheated out of wages because of outdated exemptions in the state’s minimum wage, worker’s compensation and anti-discrimination laws. Lawmakers wrote these exemptions decades ago contemplating the teenage babysitter, a far cry from today’s professional domestic workers — workers such as Carla Goyes, employed by a Greenwich family for more than a year to care for their baby.

Ms. Goyes worked upward of 55 hours a week, often staying on the job overnight for no extra pay. She soon added housekeeping, cooking and chauffeuring to her child care duties. When Ms. Goyes, herself a mother, asked for a contract defining her job responsibilities and hours, her employer fired her.

Each day, tens of thousands of nannies, housekeepers and caregivers like Ms. Goyes report to work at homes across Connecticut so other families can go to their jobs. This vital workforce keeps Connecticut’s economy moving, but domestic workers are not protected by some of the state’s most basic workplace laws. They have little recourse when they’re denied wages or forced into unpaid overtime, and no place to turn if injured on the job or sexually harassed.

The rights of the state’s domestic workers will be the focus of the proposed task force whose charge should include examining three important areas for reform to ensure that the people who care for other families can support their own.

First, domestic workers need protection from sexual harassment, discrimination and workplace injuries. We must address unjust exclusions to ensure workers, especially those who are most vulnerable because they work alone in private residences, have these basic workplace rights,

Second, add industry-specific protections that reflect domestic workers’ unique challenges. For example, employers should be required to provide domestic workers with a written statement outlining their responsibilities and defining their schedule. It would also provide domestic workers with a limited number of paid leave days, so they are no longer forced to work when they are ill or have a family emergency.

Third, given the high rate of wage violations by the employers of domestic workers and the isolation those workers face working alone in private homes, the task force should examine ways to ensure workers and employers know their rights and responsibilities. A 2009 study on low-wage work, led by the National Employment Law Project, found high rates of violations of wage and hour laws in private households: 41.5 percent of workers were paid below the minimum wage; 88.6 percent weren’t paid required overtime, and 82.6 percent weren’t paid for work they did before or after their official shift.

With approximately 40,000 domestic workers in Connecticut, improving standards in this fast-growing sector will not only better the lives of thousands of workers and their families, it will boost the economy and improve the quality of care that families and patients enjoy.

As the demand for domestic work has grown, coalitions of workers and employers in New York, Hawaii and California passed domestic worker bills of rights in their states. Caregivers, seniors and people with disabilities recently won a long fight when the Obama administration announced it would extend federal minimum wage and overtime laws to cover home care workers. This change, which boosts protections and pay for nearly 2 million workers and their families while raising the standard of patient care, will go into effect in January 2015. Coalitions in Illinois and Massachusetts are also working to pass domestic worker rights bills.

Polls show Connecticut residents overwhelmingly believe that working people should be able to cover the basics. Passing the bill to establish a task force on domestic workers’ rights will help ensure that Connecticut’s workers get the protection they need.

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