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Domestic Workers Have Little Legal Protection. This Bill Could Change That.

Kamala Harris is proposing a "bill of rights" to protect a workforce made up almost entirely of women and women of color.

by Marie Solis
Jul 15 2019, 9:00am

(L) photo by Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images; (R) Kamala Harris, photo Mason Trinca, via Getty Images. 

The vast majority of the roughly 2 million domestic workers employed in the United States don’t benefit from many of the protections afforded to workers in nearly every other industry. Aside from the hard-fought gains of the 1950s and ‘60s, which won nannies and maids recognition under minimum wage and unemployment laws, domestic workers—over 90 percent of whom are women—have won little else by way of workers’ rights, and advocates argue they remain almost entirely ignored by the country’s labor laws, even as they’ve evolved over decades.

California Senator Kamala Harris and Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal want to change that. On Monday, the two congresswomen will introduce a national “domestic workers’ bill of rights,” sweeping federal legislation that would ensure paid overtime, safe working conditions, and legal recourse for harassment and discrimination on the job for domestic workers. The bill also proposes additional rights and protections that are more specific to the domestic labor industry, advocating for healthcare and retirement benefits, written contracts, and fair hours.

“Domestic workers have been excluded from basic protections since the New Deal—and domestic workers are the future of work,” Jayapal said in a press statement. “The courageous working-class women, women of color and immigrant women who are demanding their rights today are unwilling to be excluded any longer. ...This bill will protect, stabilize and expand this important workforce in one of the fastest growing industries in the country.”

As of 2012, almost a quarter of domestic workers earned less than their state’s minimum wage, and though Black nannies earned more on average than white ones, significant pay gaps persisted between white domestic workers and their Hispanic and Asian counterparts, which are much wider for undocumented workers. In addition to meager pay, just 4 percent of domestic workers said their employers provided health insurance, and 65 percent of them went uninsured; eighty-two percent didn’t have any sick days. And when, amid these conditions, they faced sexual harassment or abuse, many domestic workers found themselves completely isolated, without any means to report their employer or escape their situation.

Jayapal and Harris first announced the legislation in November, but Monday marks its formal introduction. Over the last year and a half, the congresswomen have been working closely with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to put together the legislative package. During that time, they consulted families that need care, companies employing domestic workers, and—crucially—domestic workers themselves, to gain a clear understanding of a growing industry.

Mariana Viturro, the deputy director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said the national legislation builds on a growing domestic workers labor movement that has found success over the past decade. The organization won its first major victory in 2010, when New York became the first state to adopt a domestic workers’ bill of rights similar to the one now being proposed on the national stage: Over the next several years, eight other states and one city—Seattle—followed suit.

These states have served as testing grounds for the effectiveness of the bill of rights, and being able to observe how legislation has functioned on the state level encouraged the National Domestic Workers Alliance to beef up its federal legislative proposal. Harris and Jayapal’s legislation will include, for example, added measures to ensure there are consequences for employers who violate the rights outlined in the bill, which include a confidential hotline and a worker and employer-led federal task force.

“None of the state bills included everything domestic workers needed,” Virturro said. “In some ways, our agenda is actually much more extensive than what we established on the state level.”

If enacted, Virturro and her collaborators in Congress say the bill of rights would be transformative for women, and women of color in particular, who comprise almost the entire domestic workforce. Since their workplace consists entirely of the private sphere, the harassment and abuse domestic workers face has largely remained private as well, and a lack of protections means they’ve historically been hesitant to come forward with allegations against their employers. These problems have only grown worse under the Trump administration, according to Virturro: She says she has noticed fewer workers filing complaints about lost wages or wage theft because of the fear President Donald Trump has fomented in immigrant communities in particular.

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The National Domestic Workers Alliance doesn’t expect Harris and Jayapal’s bill to pass on the first try. Though the group is optimistic about how it will fare in the House of Representatives—Virturro mentioned the new progressive women lawmakers who won House seats in 2018—she said the political makeup of a majority-Republican Senate presents an uphill battle domestic workers will likely lose. But Virturro says introducing the bill of rights gives the fight for domestic workers’ rights a national spotlight, which will hopefully bring domestic workers out of the shadows.

“Domestic work is work being done behind closed doors in private homes, and it is work being done largely by Black women,” Virturro said. “This legislation is about visualizing an invisible workforce and having domestic work be recognized as work.”