Victory for Domestic Workers is a Victory for Women, Immigrants

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Victory for Domestic Workers is a Victory for Women, Immigrants

Jodi Jacobson

New York Governor David Paterson signs into law a bill protecting the rights of domestic workers--the child-care givers and housekeepers that enable U.S. citizens to enjoy a higher standard of living, but who have few or no rights under U.S. law.  Advocates hailed the new law, the first in the nation, as a first step.

Just before Labor Day, New York Governor David Paterson signed into law the nation’s first “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.” To say this is a victory for women, and particularly low-income women, is a gross understatement. There are an estimated 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States, according to Ai-jen Poo, executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Anywhere from 95 to 99 percent of domestic workers are women who are employed in private homes to perform household tasks traditionally perceived as inferior or “women’s” work.  A recent survey in New York State found that 99 percent of the 200,000 to 270,000 domestic workers in the state are women.

Domestic workers represent the invisible foundation of the U.S. economy.  According to Home is Where the Work Is, a study of New York’s domestic work industry produced by Domestic Workers United and Datacenter reveals that domestic workers stay in the industry, often with the same employer, for significant periods of their lives. These workers “sustain the city’s families and homes and enable New Yorkers to work and have leisure time knowing that their children, elderly, and homes are taken care of.

They also enable their employers to meet the demanding hours required for the smooth functioning and productivity of the professional sectors. 

Despite their importance to vibrant economies, domestic workers often face multiple levels of discrimination.  In a report prepared for the U.N. Human Rights Committee on human rights in the United States, Margaret Huang of Global Rights noted that because domestic workers do household work–child care, cleaning, cooking–they are often invisible and their work is not viewed as “real.”  They are paid low-wages, sometimes well below minimum wage, and have no legal rights to paid vacation, health care coverage or paid sick days. Employers may treat domestic workers like “family,’, a double-edged sword that can lead to subtle or more blatant forms of employment abuse, such being asked to “voluntarily” work long hours of unpaid over-time, or take on tasks beyond what they were originally hired to do. 

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The rights of domestic workers are tied into women’s rights and immigrant rights. Ninety-nine (99) percent of domestic workers surveyed in New York were foreign-born and 76 percent were non-U.S. citizens. Only one percent self-identified as non-Hispanic white.

Yet while they constitute a stable workforce, domestic workers also endure working conditions that violate their rights as workers and as human beings. They toil for long hours, often upwards of 10 hours per day and sometimes as much as 16 hours per day. The vast majority receive no overtime pay, health insurance, or regular vacations. Many are fired without notice or severance after years of service, without recourse.  In addition, survey data revealed:

  • Forty-one (41) percent of domestic workers in New York earn low wages. An additional 26 percent make wages below the poverty line or below minimum wage.
  • Half of workers work overtime—often more than 50-60 hours a week.
    Sixty-seven (67) percent of workers don’t receive overtime pay for overtime hours worked.
  • Domestic workers are primary providers of their families in the U.S. and in their home countries, but face severe financial hardships.
  • Thirty-three (33) percent of workers experience verbal or physical abuse or have been made to feel uncomfortable by their employers. One-third of workers who face abuse identify race and immigration status as factors for their employers’ actions. 
  • Nine out of ten domestic workers do not receive health insurance from their employers. One-third of workers could not afford medical care needed for themselves or their families. Less than half of workers receive basic workplace benefits such as regular raises and paid sick days.
  • Forty-six (46) percent of domestic workers experience stress at work.  Employers cause stress by requiring domestic workers to perform multiple jobs and to do work not in their job descriptions

Huang points out that national and local labor laws frequently exclude domestic workers from the protections offered to other workers. And according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this is no accident. The lack of protections for domestic workers is:

[A] result of a very deliberate decision in the 1930s to exclude domestic workers and farm workers (the occupations held by the majority of African-Americans at the time — a legacy of slavery) from federal labor laws, as a concession to staunch segregationists in Congress. [These omissions] mak[e] clear that the exploitation, abuse, and enslavement of domestic workers is directly related to discrimination based on sex, race, class, and immigration status.

Domestic workers continue to be excluded from labor laws that protect other workers, including protection from discrimination and the right to bargain collectively.  Enforcement of existing laws is a critical issue: The protections that do exist for domestic workers in state laws are often not enforced and employers feel free to violate laws due to lack of enforcement and the knowledge that fragile economic conditions will make domestic workers compliant with excessive demands.  Isolation, and lack of rights to organize compound these problems. 

These realities compelled advocates in New York to fight for legislation expanding and protecting the rights of domestic workers.  The law recently signed by Governor Paterson offers some remedies, including:

  • The right to overtime pay at time and a half after 40 hours of work in a week, or 44 hours for in-home workers;
  • A day of rest every seven days, or overtime pay if it is waived;
  • Three paid days of rest annually after one year of work;
  • The removal of the domestic workers exemption from the Human Rights Law, and the creation of a special cause of action for domestic workers who suffer sexual or racial harassment;
  • The extension of statutory disability benefits to domestic workers, to the same degree as other workers; and
  • A study by the Commissioner of Labor on the practicality of extending collective bargaining rights to domestic workers.

The law also applies to everyone regardless of their immigration status. Workers do not need to be “on the books” to be protected by the legislation.

This is “cause for celebration,” notes ACLU, “but also for rededication to the ongoing fight, which is far from over.”

Getting a law on the books is just the first step; there is a long road ahead towards ensuring that these rights are enforced, and that further protections — including notice of termination and collective bargaining rights — are realized.

Advocates say they hope the new law is a first step toward larger gains, like paid sick days, health benefits and severance pay.

“The domestic workers bill of rights is a first step in winning recognition. And in beginning to set the floor for this workforce where there has been none,” said Domestic Workers United Director Priscilla Gonzalez.

It takes effect 90 days from signing.