In-Depth: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced this bill to ensure rights and protections for millions of domestic workers across the United States:
“Domestic workers are one of the fastest growing workforces in our country. They provide essential care and support to aging parents, people with disabilities, children, and homes. However, our nation’s domestic workers have not been afforded the same rights and benefits as nearly every other worker, and it’s time we change that. I am proud to partner with Congresswoman Jayapal to introduce the first ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, which ensure domestic workers- many of whom are women or people of color- have the dignity and respect they deserve.”
In a statement to ELLE.com, Sen. Harris added:
“[Domestic workers] help us care for our aging parents and ensure our children stay safe, happy, and healthy, yet these workers, the majority of whom are women or people of color, have historically gone without many basic labor protections afforded to other employees.”
House sponsor Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) says:
“I am so proud to be the House sponsor of this historic National Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. Domestic workers have been excluded from basic protections since the New Deal – and domestic workers are the future of work. The courageous working-class women, women of color and immigrant women who are demanding their rights today are unwilling to be excluded any longer. When domestic workers win, everyone wins: this bill will protect, stabilize and expand this important workforce in one of the fastest growing industries in the country.”
The National Domestic Workers Alliance supports this bill. Its Executive Director, Ai-jen Poo, says:
“For the first time in history, we have a chance to raise the bar for every domestic worker in our country, and set the stage for all working people. As people live longer, we have the opportunity to embrace an intergenerational future in America, where all of us are cared for at each stage of our lives. All of us deserve to work and live with safety and dignity, and this legislation ensures that no one is left behind.”
Some nonprofit organizations have opposed efforts to pay domestic workers minimum wage and overtime on the basis that these efforts would price some people out of home care.
This legislation has eight Senate cosponsors, including seven Democrats and one Independent. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), has 39 Democratic House cosponsors. As of August 10, 2019, neither bill had received a committee vote.
A number of workers' rights organizations support this legislation. They include the National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Employment Law Project, National Women’s Law Center, AFSCME, The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), Center for American Progress and SEIU Local 503.
Of Note: There are over 2.5 million domestic workers across the U.S. They provide care to children, aging Americans, people with disabilities and homes. Their ranks include nannies, housecleaners and home care workers. 90% of this workforce is female, and women of color comprise over half of the workforce.
In a 2012 survey of domestic workers that interviewed over 2,000 nannies across 14 cities, over one-third of respondents said they worked long hours without breaks. Additionally, over 90% said they didn’t complain about problems with their working conditions out of fear of losing their jobs. Only 4% of respondents’ employers provided health insurance, so 65% of them were uninsured. Most respondents (82%) also didn’t have any sick days.
Mariana Viturro, deputy director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, says that domestic workers’ problems have only grown worse under the Trump administration. Viturro says she’s 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.
Domestic workers have historically not been protected by federal and state labor laws. When Congress first passed federal labor protections in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, domestic workers and farmworkers were left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as a concession to Southern lawmakers, whose states w ere highly invested in paying low wages to personal servants. Barnard College history professor Premilla Nadasen explains:
“Southern congressmen were fearful that granting black workers labor rights would disrupt the racial order of the South. And Northern labor leaders representing industrial unions also never saw domestic workers as part of their constituency and did not advocate for their rights.”
Lawmakers later amended the FLSA in the 1970s to cover most domestic workers, but live-in housekeepers and nannies remained excluded from the legislation’s protections. They were also excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which gave workers the right to form labor unions and organize for better working conditions.
When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, domestic workers were inadvertently left out because the Civil Rights Act didn’t include protections for workers at companies with fewer than 15 employees (which is virtually all domestic workers, who are employed by single families).
Because of a lack of legal protections, domestic workers are forced to endure systemicly low pay, sexual harassment and labor violations. They also aren’t entitled to overtime pay or a minimum wage (their median hourly wage of $11.43 an hour is one of the lowest in the U.S.), can’t receive worker’s compensation for on-the-job injuries and don’t get unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs. Economist Paul Osterman estimates that if care jobs remain as underpaid as they are today, there’ll be a national shortage of 350,000 paid care providers by 2040.
In the absence of federal legislation on this issue, eight states — Oregon, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Nevada — have passed their own legislation extending discrimination protections to domestic workers. However, Sen. Harris, Rep. Jayapal and National Domestic Workers Alliance Director Ai-jen Poo argue that state level laws aren’t enough:
“While these state-level laws make an important impact, they're certainly not enough to raise standards for the entire sector. There still are many states where domestic workers have very limited or nonexistent protections… That's why… we intend to introduce a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, because the time has come to ensure that protections and benefits give all domestic workers the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Courtney Hale)