Analysis Law and Policy

In California, Growing Support For Domestic Workers’ Rights Met By Enforcement and Political Challenges

Sheila Bapat

While laws may not be sufficient on their own -- laws never mean much without the advocates who ensure their enforcement -- they are a necessary step in improving the labor conditions of domestic workers.

Just in time for Labor Day, the California State Senate last Wednesday passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, AB 889, a law requiring protections for California’s 200,000 domestic workers including overtime pay, adequate sleeping conditions for live-in workers, and meal and rest breaks. California is now the second state in the country to pass such legislation. In perfect blue-state fashion, New York was the first, having passed its domestic workers bill of rights in 2010.

Domestic workers are mostly immigrant women who labor as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers in private homes, but they have not been adequately protected by existing labor laws. The victories in California and New York are part of a growing movement on behalf of domestic workers’ rights that has also gained traction within the Obama Administration. But challenges loom: advocates must now work to ensure enforcement of the new protections. And come November, a change in administration could set back some of the progress made at the federal level.

“Our work doesn’t end when the law passes,” said Andrea Mercado, Director of the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign and community organizer for Mujeres Unidas y Activas, an economic justice advocacy group. “We need to focus on the law’s regulation making process and spread the word among employers and domestic workers to make sure they know their rights.”

When I chatted with Mercado last Wednesday, she was in a van headed to California’s state capitol alongside domestic workers to make one final advocacy push as the state Senate voted on the bill. This bill has been inching its way through the state legislature since it was first introduced February 2011, but Mercado, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and many other organizations representing domestic workers have been part of the movement to pass this law over the last several years. In that time, support for for domestic workers rights has grown dramatically, even seeping into Hollywood: recently actor and comedian Amy Poehler created a video in support of the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. More state laws may not be far behind: Massachusetts, Washington, Hawaii, and Illinois are all poised to launch domestic workers’ rights campaigns.

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Now that California’s law has passed (California Governor Jerry Brown is being lobbied to sign the bill, though he technically doesn’t have to in order for it to take effect), California’s Department of Industrial Relations will issue regulations offering specifics about what the protections will mean for domestic workers. Regulations will be completed and effective January 1, 2014.

New York’s law has brought to light the challenges of enforcing domestic worker protections. Homes are not factories through which an inspector can easily traipse to ensure standards are up to par, and even with protections in place domestic workers may choose not to raise their voices for fear of losing their jobs. Writer Sharon Lerner pointed out in The Nation recently that, as of February 2012, only five complaints filed by domestic workers under the New York statute had been brought to resolution.

While laws may not be sufficient on their own–laws never mean much without the advocates who ensure their enforcement–they are a necessary step in improving the labor conditions of domestic workers. One New York domestic worker who filed a complaint with the New York Department of Labor did receive a $100,000 award in back-wages and penalties.

“The laws in New York and California provide a foundation to build upon, and they open up public imagination for this idea that domestic workers are real workers who should have rights in the workplace,” said Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

“What we were able to do through the New York and California campaigns and legislation is establish the baseline, minimum standards for this population. And we’ve been building upon it by encouraging workers to come out of shadows and report incidents of abuse and violations.”

Among the groups active in passing the California law are legal advocacy organizations that actually represent domestic workers in their dealing with employers as well as in filing complaints under the new law. The Golden Gate University Women’s Employment Rights Clinic has been a force in advocating for AB 889. The clinic now plans to be involved in the regulatory process, and will continue to represent domestic workers as well as create educational materials explaining the law for domestic workers and their employers.

At the federal level, President Obama vocalized his support for domestic workers rights early in his 2008 campaign. Since then, organizers have been in talks with Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Hilda Solis about revising federal labor regulations pertaining to domestic workers. Thus far DOL has revised regulations pertaining to caregivers for the elderly, but these regulations need to be taken up by the Office of Management and Budget before they can go into effect.

Advocates fear this federal regulatory progress would be erased by a change in administration and or a shift in the makeup of the House and Senate. A major aspect of the Republican platform, apparent in last week’s Republican National Convention, is to reduce regulations. Republicans argue that such regulations can stifle job creation. Prominent Republicans have already opposed protections for domestic workers; California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a domestic workers bill that came to his desk in 2006.

Despite the hurdles, Poo sees the California victory and the movement overall as an opportunity to engage with domestic workers and build awareness about their rights. And it’s an opportunity to connect with the families that employ domestic workers who, she says, really want to do the right thing.

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