Domestic Worker Labor Leader: Federal Victory Is in Sight

Domestic Worker Labor Leader: Federal Victory Is in Sight

Domestic Worker Labor Leader: Federal Victory Is in Sight

A proposed regulatory change would extend some basic federal protections to long-excluded domestic workers.


Ai-Jen Poo (Courtesy of Flickr)

A key leader in the movement to raise labor standards for domestic workers expects a long-awaited federal rule change to soon become law. Ai-Jen Poo, who founded and directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told The Nation in an interview last week that the new regulations would be “one of the most significant victories for low-wage workers of this administration.” Citing supportive comments by Vice President Joe Biden at a June event celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the confirmation of a new secretary of labor in July, Poo said she hopes to see the process completed this month.

“The different agencies have been trying to work towards finalization,” Poo told The Nation, “and that it could be a matter of days or weeks until it gets finalized is our understanding.” She called the proposed change “an investment in a twenty-first-century workforce that is only going to grow. And it is an investment in plugging the holes in our labor laws where large numbers of people who work full-time, or more than full-time, are actually working in poverty still.”

As I’ve reported, domestic workers—those doing caring and cleaning work in the home—are among the growing number of US workers excluded from many federal labor protections. NDWA estimates that the ranks of domestic workers will double to 5 million in the coming years as the “baby boomer” generation ages and increasingly turns to in-home care. Poo argues that such work is also increasingly central to understanding the larger US economy. “What is happening,” she told The Nation in April, “is that work is becoming more unstable, insecure, dangerous and vulnerable…. We’re essentially all becoming domestic workers.”

Excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which promised most private sector workers the right to organize and bargain collectively with their boss, some domestic workers over the past decade have been organizing at the local and national level to transform the industry through worker mobilization, social pressure on employers and politics. Left out of many of the wage and hour protections of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, they’ve pushed statewide bills legislating a “Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights”; such legislation passed in New York in 2010, and in Hawaii this year, but was vetoed in California in 2012. (Meanwhile, some workers doing taxpayer-funded care work have attained legal collective bargaining rights as public workers following labor-backed changes to state law.)

In 2011, flanked by domestic labor activists including a worker whom he’d shadowed for a day while running for president, President Obama announced a proposed federal regulatory change that would extend more federal protections like overtime pay to more domestic workers. The proposed change, which would broaden coverage by significantly narrowing a “companionship” exclusion in the amended Fair Labor Standards Act, has received tens of thousands of public comments.

Twenty months after Obama’s initial announcement, the proposed change—which some involved had expected to be completed during his first term—may now be on the cusp of becoming law. In January, the DOL informed Congress that it had transmitted a draft final rule to the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews proposed regulations. Asked about the rule’s status, a DOL spokesperson said Wednesday that it was “still under review by OMB”; an OMB spokesperson did not respond to a Tuesday inquiry. Activists from NDWA, the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups held a July 23 “Countdown to Dignity” rally outside the Department of Labor to urge swift action.

The rate of regulatory change under Obama has sometimes fallen short of organized labor’s hopes. A proposed rule restricting child labor on farms was scrapped following criticism from Sarah Palin and Al Franken. A proposed OSHA rule regulating silica dust, identified as a key priority by the AFL-CIO, has been under review for two years. A rule responding to alleged abuse of guest workers under H-2B visas became law, only to be defunded by a bipartisan majority in Congress.

Asked about criticism on the pace of regulatory progress, a DOL spokesperson e-mailed that the agency “has taken a comprehensive approach in its commitment to protect the health and safety and hard-earned wages of workers, especially those in low-wage industries. Regulatory action is just one of the many tools the department uses to protect workers across the country.” The spokesperson cited the DOL’s use of “strategic enforcement efforts, sub-regulatory guidance, and amicus briefs weighing in with the Secretary’s position on unsettled questions of law.” Regulations issued by the Obama Department of Labor include an expansion of military family leave, and a protection for workers’ job security when a federal contract shifts from one company to another.

While hopeful that the proposed change would soon be on the books, Poo said “our one concern” is that final regulatory language would give employers too much time to start complying. Poo said that a phase-in period of up to a year “makes sense,” but “any longer than that I think is unnecessary, and every day that we wait workers are continuing to suffer in poverty.”

While pushing for faster federal action, NDWA is also out to up the pressure on California Governor Jerry Brown to sign this year’s version of the state’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. A caravan across California culminated this week in a Tuesday march by activists, workers and legislators to the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento. The bill has so far passed the State Assembly and the Senate Industrial Relations Committee; it faces a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.

While Democrats now hold veto-proof majorities in both houses of California’s legislature, Poo told The Nation in April that securing the governor’s support would be important both to winning strong majorities in the legislature and to ensuring effective implementation. She estimated last week that if signed, a California law would pass a “tipping point” at which the majority of the US workforce would live in states whose laws provide them additional protections. (The state bills include some protections that that the federal change would not.) State legislation was defeated last month in the Oregon State Senate; campaigns are also underway in Illinois and Massachusetts.

Asked about the bill, a spokesperson for the governor e-mailed, “Generally, we do not comment on pending legislation.” In vetoing the previous version of the bill, Brown said domestic workers performed a “noble endeavor,” but that the legislation “raises a number of unanswered questions” in terms of cost.

Brown and others have raised concerns over how minimum wage and overtime protections for domestic workers would affect disabled clients. Asked about such arguments, Poo said, “We’re going to be advocating really vigorously to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences in terms of people’s hours,” and “pushing to make sure that people aren’t negatively affected in terms of the care they have.” Asked where the cash for increased compensation will come from, Poo answered, “In some cases, it will come out of agencies. In other cases, it will come out of private employers. In other cases it will come out of publicly funded programs.” NDWA and allies have emphasized coalition-building with groups whose members utilize in-home care.

Looking forward, argued Poo, “There has to be a whole new system to support families in the coming age wave to be able to take care of their aging loved ones at home.” Calling the current Medicaid system “biased towards institution-based care” and “a poverty model where you have to impoverish yourself in order to qualify for services,” she urged “a whole very ambitious program that we develop that actually will support families to manage the care that they’re going to need in the future.” “I think,” added Poo, “that is absolutely essential, that we start piloting in states what that could look like, and really start thinking proactively about it.”

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