Last week, domestic workers — those who care for children and clean inside people’s homes — won two surprise victories securing more rights in Connecticut and Oregon.
Oregon has considered a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights for many years, but then last week it gained traction. “At the last minute, this bill suddenly got the attention of a critical mass of legislators,” said Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The law would mean that all nannies, house cleaners, and housekeepers who work in people’s homes would have a right to three days off a year, overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week (or 44 if they live in an employer’s home), meal and rest breaks, 24 consecutive hours of rest each week or eight hours of rest every 24 hours for live-in employees, uninterrupted sleep and the right to cook food for those who live in their employers’ homes, and protections against harassment and discrimination.
Connecticut’s bill is a good deal narrower. It would change the state’s anti-discrimination and harassment statutes so that they include domestic workers, who are currently excluded. It will only apply to employers with three or more workers, however, which will exclude many households that only have one nanny or housekeeper. But as Poo pointed out, the state has “a density of wealthy employers who employ more than one domestic worker in their homes.”
And the changes can still have a big impact. “We believe a very high percentage of workers in Connecticut will benefit from this,” said Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Worker Center. Meanwhile, the symbolic significance is important. “It’s removing exclusions that are over 70 years old, it is creating changes in laws, but also showing it’s possible to change culture,” she said.
It’s also the first step in what organizers in the state hope will be a two-part process. Last year, the state convened a task force to study domestic workers’ rights in the state. The task force will release a report on its findings in October. At that point, Tracy, a member of the task force herself, says her group will use the recommendations to push for a full bill of rights that includes anti-relation provisions, parental leave and other benefits, and anti-trafficking measures. “I firmly believe that we’re going to be in excellent shape next year when it comes time to submit a bill and to have support on the bill,” she said.
It’s unclear whether the governors in each state will sign the bills into law, although advocates told ThinkProgress they believe both will. A spokesperson for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said, “The Governor will review the bill once it reaches her desk,” and a spokesperson for Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy’s (D) office said they are reviewing its bill.
Four states have already passed their own versions of Domestic Workers Bills of Rights: the first was New York, followed by California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts.
Beyond Connecticut and Oregon, Illinois could be another state to join the mix and pass a bill of rights. “We finally got a breakthrough last week with the House passing the bill, including some bipartisan support,” Poo noted. “We are now kind of all hands on deck trying to move through the Senate.”
Without the extra protections, domestic workers remain vulnerable to being paid poorly and mistreated. In a 2012 survey of more than 2,000 domestic workers across the country, a quarter were paid less than minimum wage and about half made an hourly wage that wasn’t enough to support their families. That left 20 percent to go without food because they couldn’t afford to buy any. Meanwhile, more than a third said they worked long hours without breaks but 85 percent didn’t get any overtime pay. But they have little recourse if they don’t like their working conditions: 91 percent who had problems didn’t complain for fear of risking their jobs, while among those who were actually fired, nearly a quarter was because they spoke up.
Poo’s group also isn’t settling for the basic standards required in the states that have passed bills of rights. They also want to see domestic workers get a living wage and paid time off. “We haven’t been successful in getting those pieces into many of the bills around the country,” she noted. But ever since they passed, her group has been focused on “using the minimum standards as a jumping off point,” she said, to get employers to go beyond the minimum.