Domestic Workers and the Fight for Their Rights - Women's Foundation California

When Maria de Lordes Luna needed time to go to her doctor’s appointments, her employer denied her the paid sick leave that she is guaranteed as an employee in San Francisco (one hour per 30 hours of work).

“I’m not going to pay you…you don’t have protections,” the employer told Luna, who has worked as a domestic worker taking care of seniors and people with disabilities and chronic illnesses since 1996.

Unfortunately, Luna’s story is not unique. Due to the nature of their work, the 2.5 million domestic workers across the country—who are 95 percent women—are some of our most vulnerable workers.

“We have a culture of not accounting for or recognizing the true value of caregiving,” Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), told the New York Times. “This work has a special vulnerability…they’re spread out among millions of unmarked homes. And they have a long history of exclusion from basic labor protections.”

Domestic workers have been denied workplace protections for nearly a century. When the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed in 1938 as part of New Deal legislation to establish a minimum wage and maximum workweek, Southern legislators only agreed to sign if domestic and farm workers—who at the time were mostly black—were actively excluded.

The effects of this racist exclusion continues to have very real impacts on the lives of today’s domestic workers—who are 54 percent women of color and 46 percent immigrants. In 2012, 23 percent of domestic workers were paid below their state’s minimum wage, 90 percent of whom did not report it because they were afraid they would lose their jobs, according to a NDWA study.

This exclusion from federal labor protections means domestic workers are additionally excluded from traditional unions. As a result, they have organized around worker centers, which are often founded and led by women of color. The centers empower their workers by offering various resources such as job, immigration, language and legal training.

“Whenever I have a question there is always someone I can depend on,” said Cynthia Montenegro, a domestic worker who is part of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a worker center and Womens Foundation of California grant partner.

“[MUA] gave me strength. Now every time I look for work, I am more motivated. I’m not scared. I’m confident,” she continued.”

In the case of Maria de Lordes Luna, MUA was able to work with her to win the right to sick pay. However, this is certainly not the case for all domestic workers who not guaranteed this protection by law. As a result, domestic workers are taking action into their own hands to fight this injustice. Led by the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CDWC), they are organizing beyond their centers to institute change at the state level.

“We participated in a lot of petitions, protests, marches and meetings with legislators in Sacramento,” said Montenegro. “That gave us a lot of experience in speaking and expressing ourselves without fear of speaking out about what is happening at our jobs and showing [the policymakers] that our jobs are invisible and undervalued.”

In 2013, the approximately 300,000 domestic workers in California temporarily won their rights to overtime pay when the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights became law (AB 241, Ammiano). This legislation requires that domestic workers receive one and one-half time their regular pay after working 9 hours a day and/or 45 hours a week. This law was largely inspired by previous legislation passed in New York and Hawai’i and since then, similar laws have been passed in Massachusetts, Oregon and Connecticut.

This legislation, which came after two separate governors’ vetoes in 2006 and 2012, includes nannies and caregivers, who were redefined by the Labor Department as “elder companions” when implementing new FLSA extensions in the 1970s, thereby excluding a large portion of domestic workers.

“With enforcement, this measure [puts] money into the pockets of workers who are routinely under-compensated for the long hours they put in,”  said Poo and Andrea Cristina Mercado, campaign director of NDWA. “Everyone involved was proud of what was achieved in the state with the largest number of immigrant workers and the largest number of domestic workers.”

The law, however, is set to expire on January 1, 2017 if not renewed. Domestic workers across the state are working hard to pass Senate Bill 1015 (Leyva), which would make the legislation permanent in California.

In late June 2016, SB 1015 passed through the Assembly Labor Committee, making it one step closer to reaching Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.

This battle is far from finished. Coalitions across the state hope to organize 10 percent of all California domestic workers as they continue to mobilize and fight for rights that they have for so long been denied, such as meal and rest breaks, higher living wages, paid sick and vacation days and social security and healthcare benefits.

“This is about defending a victory that we have fought so long and hard for,” said Katie Joaquin, Women’s Policy Institute graduate and campaign director of MUA and CDWC.

“What will it take to change a very entrenched culture that says that this work isn’t really work and that these communities aren’t valuable?” she continued.

The efforts of the domestic worker movement not only directly impact California’s 300,000 domestic workers, but also pave the way for workers of the future. As low-wage and historically marginalized and vulnerable workers continue to be denied their rights, domestic workers have challenged us to reconsider which professions and its communities are valued and protected in this country.

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