Life’s about to get a little better for about 67,000 nannies, housekeepers and other in-home workers in the Commonwealth. Massachusetts is on track to become one of just four states to pass a Bill of Rights for the workers who are closest to us, yet often the least visible.
The legislation, which passed the House overwhelmingly last week and awaits the governor’s signature, establishes basic rules on working hours, rest breaks and dealing with work-related complaints. Similar to and building upon comparable laws in New York, California and Hawaii, the bill grants domestic workers 24 hours of consecutive rest weekly for 40 hours of work per week, plus overtime for each excess hour worked. Bosses who employ a worker for more than sixteen hours per week must provide the terms of employment, including wages and working conditions, in writing up-front. Workers have formal civil rights protections through the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, giving them recourse against common problems in this sector like sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. Workers are also protected from retaliation for complaining about wage violations.
The law extends regulations on the private home as a workplace—preventing them from being unfairly charged for food and lodging, for example, and providing advance notice of termination for live-in workers, so they don’t wind up homeless. And domestic workers would gain novel privacy protections, which bar employers from monitoring or restricting phone calls and other communications, or confiscating identification documents.
The coalition behind the legislation included community groups representing immigrant women, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and local affiliates, and numerous unions, as well as religious groups and academic and campus activist organizations.
In addition to the broad political support, personal stories of exploitation helped stir lawmakers to act. Sonia Soares, who had worked in private homes as an elder-care giver and housekeeper for nearly thirty years, testified at a hearing last November: “My colleagues and I clean up to 14 houses a day and still struggle to make ends meet.… I personally have been slapped in the face, pushed, yelled at and sexually harassed.” Stories of round-the-clock shifts, being denied time off when ill and rampant underpayment of wages are not uncommon in this industry, where the walls of a private home render a workplace a lawless zone.
For Nalva Pinto, a caregiver who says she was just unfairly dismissed after seven years, the legislation comes too late. “If the Bill of Rights were in place,” she says via e-mail, “they could not have thrown me in the streets just like that. After seven years and four months, I got nothing.” She suspects her termination was because she complained about her harsh working conditions. “I am a living example of how important this bill is.”