Domestic workers are organizing for better working conditions nationwide

The cutout image of a protester shouting into a megaphone is superimposed over a blurry background that shows protest signs of workers on strike. The images are tinted forest green.
Valerie Morris/Associated Press file/ Getty Images

Domestic workers throughout the country are pushing for better working conditions, staging rallies and protests and lobbying for labor protections.

The workers, including nannies, house cleaners and home care workers, have launched campaigns in places including Miami, where two organizations led a mid-June march calling for a “Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.”

That same week, workers rallied in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square — a tony area with well-staffed homes — as legislators from California to Rhode Island considered bills strengthening the labor rights of domestic workers.

The idea of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights has been a centerpiece of the push for better working conditions for nearly two decades, ever since activist Ai-jen Poo envisioned the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) around the concept.

Founded in 2007, it has grown into a national advocacy organization. In April, it co-hosted the Care Workers Can’t Wait Summit in Washington, D.C., along with major labor and political organizations SEIU; AFL-CIO; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Community Change; MomsRising; Care in Action; and Care Can’t Wait.

“It’s really the first time that you have domestic workers, home care, child care, early educators, nursing home workers all together to say, ‘Our jobs are the jobs of the future. Our work is here to stay,'” Poo told The Hill in a recent interview.

Though specific legislative proposals vary from state to state and city to city, the main thrust of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is to remove labor law exclusions implemented for domestic workers starting in the New Deal era.

The coalition with care workers outside the home is a strategic move for domestic workers; implementing the bill of rights has been a challenge even in jurisdictions that have enshrined it into law.

Philadelphia, for instance, passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2020, but according to a report by The Philadelphia Inquirer, 44 percent of workers surveyed by NDWA said their employers had violated provisions of the bill.

A national bill, first introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) in 2019, would guarantee sick leave, require written contracts, implement meal and rest breaks, establish protections against workplace harassment and protect workers from losing pay due to last-minute cancellations.

“We have to pass legislation. We need to be able to invest in this workforce. We need to be able to train, add to and provide rights on the job,” Jayapal said.

“I have the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which also for the first time would provide the same protections to domestic workers that other workers get.”

With Republican control of the House, it’s unlikely the bill will get a vote. But Jayapal lauded President Biden for an April executive order that expanded access to grants to make care services more affordable and directed the Department of Labor to publish a sample employment agreement.

“The idea that the Department of Labor and the federal government will say, ‘Actually, this is a job that should have a contract and an agreement, the work agreement should be clear like any other job in America,’ is a game changer,” Poo said. 

“Because if you are a domestic worker, and you are in a one-to-one relationship with your employer, you really don’t have negotiating power.”

Millions of workers face pay gap

According to a 2022 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), domestic workers face a 25 percent pay gap: “The average domestic worker is paid 75 cents for every dollar that a similar worker would make in another occupation.”

The study identified 2.2 million domestic workers in 2021, though researchers wrote it is “highly likely” that figure is a significant undercount, since many workers are paid “under the table,” and a significant number are undocumented immigrants, who are generally underrepresented in surveys.

In that population, the EPI identified 304,557 house cleaners, 211,675 nannies, 239,942 child care workers who tend to children in their own home, 148,897 nonagency home care aides, and 1,253,899 agency-based home care aides.

The poverty rate among domestic workers generally is 8.5 percentage points higher than the poverty rate among similar workers in other industries, and the twice-poverty rate — workers whose family income is below twice the official poverty line — is 17.8 percentage points higher, according to the EPI.

The twice-poverty rate is often used by researchers as a cutoff to gauge whether a family has enough income to realistically make ends meet.

The economic portion of the study, which used data compiled between 2016 and 2018, also found large gaps in benefits compared to workers in other economic sectors.

While 49 percent of workers analyzed in the study had employer-paid health insurance coverage, only 19 percent of domestic workers had coverage. Similarly, 33 percent of workers overall had some sort of employee provided retirement plan, compared to only 9 percent of domestic workers.

Coverage rates were higher for agency-based home care aides — 25 percent had health coverage and 13 percent retirement benefits — but still significantly lower than the national average.

Labor law exclusions for domestic workers

Those working directly for domestic employers are often left to their own devices to negotiate their working conditions.

That unique relationship was at the heart of creating labor law exclusions for domestic workers in the first place, but workers and advocates say those exclusions have led to abuses from wage theft to workdays with no set start or end time and no formal breaks.

Those abuses often go unreported or unpunished for a variety of reasons, including fear of reprisals, and in many cases undocumented workers’ fear of approaching authorities.

Employers of domestic workers are also AWOL in public discussions of the topic. At a Rhode Island House Labor Committee hearing on the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights earlier this year, no employers or employees in the field showed up to testify, reported the Providence Journal.

Yet, at a California Senate floor debate on the state’s version of the bill, California state Sen. María Elena Durazo (D), the lead sponsor of the bill, said employers largely support the proposal because it’s been molded to the unique needs of the industry.

“That’s what the domestic workers are looking for. It’s, ‘Fix the problem,’ it’s not a, ‘Hey I gotcha,'” Durazo said.

“The proof is in the pudding that they’ve spent several years coming up with what are rational types of guidelines, and that’s why employers are so supportive — household employers are so supportive because they see that it makes sense. When you have safer homes, it’s safer for everybody.”

Opposition to the legislation, however muted, rests on the challenges of policing labor laws in private domiciles.

California state Sen. Brian Dahle (R), who in 2022 mounted a shoestring campaign to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), compared the bill’s provisions to Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations applicable in a commercial or industrial worksite.

“I would think this bill would actually deter people from having those people do those services because of the liability in your own home,” Dahle said during a short-lived California Senate floor debate.

The bill cleared the Senate 24-8 on a largely party-line vote and is now under consideration by the California Assembly.

The broader legislative push is emboldening some domestic workers to participate in protests like the ones in Philadelphia and Miami, breaking from the traditional silence enveloping their industry.

And the alliance with the broader out-of-home care field is helping domestic workers find a model structure to engage employers and legislators.

“When workers see other workers organizing and they see a powerful movement like this, that has built in size, in depth, in relationship and in power to elected officials, you think about all the states that states and cities that have passed domestic workers bills of rights, that is all a testament to the power of the people who are organizing,” Jayapal said.

“Powerful organizing begets more powerful organizing, and it’ll continue to grow because other workers will say, ‘Wait a second, we deserve this too. We deserve rights on the job, we deserve good pay, we deserve union jobs.'”

Tags Ai-Jen Poo domestic labor labor law working conditions

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