Photo courtesy of CA Domestic Workers Coalition

Photo courtesy of CA Domestic Workers Coalition

Domestic Workers Finally Recognized as a Dignified Workforce

By Maria Distancia and Katie Joaquin

Until recently, California’s domestic workers labored in the shadows, battling the entrenched mindset that domestic work does not merit the same recognition and labor rights as other work.

No one talked about domestic workers’ rights before this movement. But, the unprecedented mobilization and leadership of domestic workers resulted in legislators and celebrities alike speaking out about the injustices these workers face.

In 2013, however, domestic workers finally won some basic rights when California passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, extending daily overtime pay for hundreds of thousands of domestic workers. By doing so, the state addressed an historic inequity, finally acknowledging domestic workers as a legitimate workforce.

California is home to more than 250,000 domestic workers who work in private homes as housekeepers, nannies and caregivers, taking care of children, seniors and people with disabilities. Almost all of those who do the work of care are women. The vast majority of them are immigrants.

Some ease the pain of illness and injury, others are the bridge to independent living for parents and people with disabilities, and many are full partners in raising our children. They enable family members in households across California to pursue their own careers, start and run businesses, or go to school.

Many domestic workers also are mothers, grandmothers and the primary income earners for their own families. Despite their invaluable contributions, they continue to suffer from acute financial hardship. A 2012 study of California’s domestic workers found the median wage for domestic workers is $10 an hour, with nearly one in four workers reporting that they had no food to eat in their homes in the past month because they could not afford it.

Lourdes Perez, one of the worker leaders of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign in California, often speaks about attending her first organizing meetings para el pan—for the bread provided. After removing herself from a violent relationship, Lourdes and her three-year-old son Kevin lived on the streets while she scraped together a living through domestic work. In addition to Kevin, Lourdes also supports two children in Mexico.

The vulnerability of domestic workers to exploitation and abuse is rooted in the legacy of slavery and in a long history of devaluing women’s labor in the home. In 1938, Southern Congressmen made sure that their African-American housekeepers and nannies were specifically excluded from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. And in California, the Industrial Welfare Commission justified the ongoing exclusion of homecare workers from state labor rights with the rationale that caregiving was done as “a source of rewarding activity” or “merely for supplemental income.”

California’s new law signifies a significant breakthrough in establishing public and political recognition of all domestic workers as a dignified workforce deserving of the same labor protections that other workers enjoy. It also represents a hard-won victory resulting from a seven-year campaign organized by grassroots domestic worker organizations, despite the almost insurmountable challenges to organizing immigrant women in hundreds of thousands of workplaces. No one talked about domestic workers’ rights before this movement. But, the unprecedented mobilization and leadership of domestic workers resulted in legislators and celebrities alike speaking out about the injustices these workers face.

The victory in California adds to the momentum of a growing movement for domestic workers’ rights and dignity that is global in scope and steadily gaining strength in the United States, with the National Domestic Workers Alliance at the helm. In 2010, the state of New York was the first to adopt a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In 2011, the International Labour Organization adopted the first-ever global labor standards governing the treatment of domestic workers. In 2013, Hawaii passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Department of Labor established regulations granting homecare workers federal overtime protections. The momentum continues in 2014, with domestic worker coalitions in several states advocating for similar Bill of Rights legislation.

In California, these new protections will be in effect for three years, at which point they can be extended or made permanent. The bill also requires the Governor to form a committee of domestic workers and their employers to study the effects of the added labor protections.

This is a huge victory, but our work is not done. Our next step is to push for fair and timely implementation of these new protections. There continues to be widespread misunderstanding of what qualifies as domestic work and a tremendous lack of knowledge—on the part of state agencies, domestic work employers and domestic workers alike—of the labor laws that protect domestic workers.

Emiliana Acopio, another leader in the Bill of Rights campaign, was mistakenly informed by her employer that minimum wage laws did not apply to her job, thus justifying a flat daily rate, regardless of the hours she worked. Some days she would work nine hours. Other days, she would work 14 hours. Either way, she was paid a flat rate of $50 per day, meaning she earned between $3.57 and $5.55 an hour. We must educate domestic workers and their employers about the labor protections that exist and encourage them to uphold even higher standards in their homes.

California also must continue to prioritize sensible public policies that set enforceable standards covering domestic worker wages, terms of employment and health and safety conditions in the workplace. To lay the foundation for more comprehensive protections, the state needs to study and rigorously collect data on how the new law is impacting domestic workers and their employers.

Fueled by a growing need for in-home support as baby boomers retire at a rapid pace, homecare is one of the fastest growing occupations in the nation. In addition, the massive entry of women into the labor force over the past several decades—combined with the lack of adequate public policies related to maternity leave, family leave, child care or elder care—contributes to the growing demand for domestic workers. As comedian and actor Amy Poehler said in a public service announcement supporting California’s new legislation, many “get to do what they do because there are wonderful people in their home helping them.”

Let’s continue to protect and value the work of care and the people who do the work that makes all our other work possible.