Massachusetts Domestic Workers Are Close To Protection From Abuse And Guaranteed Time Off

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The Massachusetts House passed legislation that includes expanded labor rights for the state’s domestic workers at the end of last week.

The state’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights would change its labor laws so that the 67,000 people who work inside others’ homes would get a day off each week, guaranteed breaks for meals and rest, and vacation, sick time, and parental leave. They would also get better protections from discrimination and sexual harassment plus the right to be notified of termination, as well as the ability to file complaints with the state’s Commission Against Discrimination.

The legislation now goes to the state Senate. It also raises the minimum wage to $10.50 within two years without linking future increases to rising inflation, while a bill already passed by the Senate would put the wage at $11 within three years and peg it to rising costs. Both bills also raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. The two chambers will have to find a compromise before a bill could head to the desk of Gov. Deval Patrick (D) for a signature.

While all of those who work inside the home are now protected by federal labor rights after the Labor Department extended them to home health aides last year, domestic workers such as nannies and housekeepers are still frequently subject to abuse and poor working conditions. About 20 percent nationally say they have been threatened, insulted, or verbally abused by their employers and 35 percent say they have worked long hours without breaks. Among those who are fired, nearly a quarter are let go because they complained about their working conditions. But few even complain: over 90 percent who have encountered problems say they haven’t spoken up for fear of losing their jobs. And they have little recourse for addressing these abuses. They are excluded from most federal anti-discrimination laws, since they only apply to employers with multiple workers, and are also excluded from the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which doesn’t apply to workers who perform household tasks.

Besides these working conditions, domestic workers also tend to be paid poorly. Nearly a quarter make less than their state’s minimum wage and 70 percent earn less than $13 an hour, often leading to acute financial hardship. In New York, 90 percent earn poverty wages.

States have begun to address these problems by passing bills of rights. New York was the first, passing a law in 2010, and since then California and Hawaii have done the same. But in the vast majority of states, those who care for our children and keep our houses clean work in precarious and sometimes dangerous situations.