There are about 2 million domestic workers in the country, a workforce that is only growing larger as baby boomers age and millennials have children. But despite the size of the workforce and the importance of the work it performs, domestic workers are excluded from basic workplace protections and face rampant abuse and exploitation. Eight states and Seattle have passed bills of domestic-worker rights that extend some of these protections, but outside of those places, domestic workers labor in people’s homes with little recourse if they get hurt or taken advantage of.
That could change under legislation that was just unveiled in Congress. On Wednesday, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jayapal announced a federal bill of rights for domestic workers, the first-ever nationwide legislation that would extend working rights to domestic workers and offer them financial stability and safety. The bill would ensure that domestic workers are covered by some basic labor laws: the right to overtime pay when they put in more than 40 hours a week, to the protections of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to form unions, and to recourse against harassment and discrimination. It also extends new ones, such as the right to meal and rest breaks, paid sick days, advanced notice of scheduling, written agreements, and privacy and other protections for live-in workers.
As of 2012, domestic workers made less than $11 an hour at the median, while nearly a quarter were paid less than their state’s minimum wage. They very rarely get health insurance or retirement benefits from work. Their schedules are usually dictated by their employer’s whims and wishes, even when this interferes with sleeping and eating. Rates of injury are high, as are incidents of discrimination and harassment.
In addition to creating basic protections like overtime, paid sick days, and the right to unionize, the bill announced today would create a new retirement-savings plan funded by employers, offer workers affordable health insurance, and create training and development programs. And it would create and fund a new Interagency Task Force on Protecting Domestic Workers’ Workplace Rights, including the involvement of the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to police the industry and ensure employers comply with the new rules.
“I’ve heard their stories [of domestic workers’ being mistreated] over and over again and throughout the course of these last many years,” Representative Jayapal said. “I decided if I got to Congress that I would want to make this a priority issue.”
June Barrett started doing domestic work when she was 14 years old in her home country of Jamaica. She arrived in the United States in 2001 and she’s been doing care work in Florida since then. “The very first care job I went on in Miami, I remember I was greeted with a racial slur,” she recalled. “It was traumatizing.” Since then she’s become a certified nursing assistant and works as a home health aide. “It’s a passion for me,” she explained. She finds motivation in remembering the lack of care her own grandmother received after having a stroke and being bedridden. “She literally rotted away from bed sores,” Barrett recalled. She wants to “give these people the care my grandmother should have gotten.”
But she has also suffered abuses of her own. She’s experienced wage theft and sexual harassment. She started getting paid sick days and paid vacation time only a few years ago. Once she was lifting a client—a common requirement of the work, but one that happens with virtually no oversight to make sure workers don’t injure themselves—and hurt her head as she pivoted the wrong way. She had to go to physical therapy to heal, but received no worker’s compensation. She and her fellow domestic workers often come in contact with bodily fluids and yet often don’t have protective gear like gloves.
The abuse hasn’t just been physical. One client told her to go to a supermarket on her way home and get bleach, pour it in her bathtub, and soak in it, “because you’re too black,” she recalled. Even though she wept when she got home, she went back to work the next day. “I’m a carer, that’s my job, to give the best care possible.” Hired as a live-in caretaker for a sick, elderly man, she was told by his daughter to sleep in an extra bedroom. But one week later, his wife screamed that it wasn’t her place and threw her belongings out of the room. For the rest of her employment, she slept curled up on a tiny couch.
At the time, “I didn’t know where to turn,” she said. “I was giving them care, but within the industry no one was caring for me.” She was too terrified to tell anyone, fearing “there was no safety net,” especially if her employers simply responded by firing her. “We are often up against the rich, white folks we work for.”
Then she heard about the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which organizes domestic workers across the country. She quickly got involved and has since become a dedicated organizer, both in Miami and around the country. She now feels emboldened enough to ask for better working conditions from her employers, and has gotten them.
Still, she knows she’s one of the lucky ones. “I know what it is to be afraid to speak up. I have the power now, but it took me a long time to get to this point,” she recalled. “There are others who are still suffering and are afraid.”
Domestic workers have a long history of being excluded from labor laws. When the National Labor Relations Act, which enshrines workers’ rights to organize, was enacted in 1935, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which ensures workers be paid minimum wage and overtime, was enacted in 1938, both purposefully exempted domestic workers. The bill of rights will “address these grave omissions,” Representative Jayapal said.
But the new bill goes farther. “It not only addresses generations-old exclusions of this workforce in our labor laws and protections, but it also establishes a framework to make these jobs really good jobs for the 21st century,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It requires domestic workers be given paid sick days and predictable schedules and ensures that they can get health care and retirement savings—all benefits that many other American workers still can’t count on. Those components will “make [domestic work positions] good jobs and have the pathway to economic mobility that manufacturing jobs did in the 20s and 30s.”
Will a more sweeping bill succeed? Poo’s experience suggests there’s no point in starting small. “It often takes just as long to fight for something relatively small and incremental as it does to fight for something much more transformative,” Poo noted. That’s what she has learned from fighting for bills of rights in states. “Rather than negotiate with ourselves, [let’s] launch what we feel to be a reasonable and also inspiring framework for legislative change.”
The federal domestic-workers’ bill of rights offers a model that can be utilized by many different kinds of workers who work for multiple bosses without traditional employment structures, all of whom belong to the so-called “gig economy.” Its retirement fund or enforcement task force could be deployed for, say, Uber drivers or contract workers in Amazon warehouses. “If we can solve for some of these protections and rights for this workforce, we can do it for anyone,” Poo said. But the issue has increased urgency in the domestic labor force as the need for domestic workers grows and a shortage looms.
It may seem overly optimistic to introduce such a sweeping bill when Republicans control two branches of government and have stood against expanded workplace rights and benefits. But its supporters see reason to be hopeful. “We live in a time where conventional wisdoms are being turned on their heads,” Poo said. Ever since she started organizing domestic workers she has been told it would be impossible, let alone to pass nine bills of rights across the country. “We’re accustomed to busting notions of what’s possible open,” she added.
Plus, Representative Jayapal said, the bill is “incredibly reasonable,” adding: “We’re just asking for some of the same protections that other workers get and trying to bring the protections up to speed.”
A legislative reform like this has been a long time coming. The National Domestic Workers Alliance formed 11 years ago and members first traveled to Washington, DC, to advocate for their rights in 2009. In the intervening time, they’ve notched victories across states that have implemented bills of rights. That created “momentum,” Poo said, while also offering lessons in what works and what doesn’t. In recent years, the workers themselves have been working on recommendations for industry standards, which formed the basis of this legislation.
The introduction of a national version of a bill of rights will also create a new conversation about the nature of this work. Domestic work “is often still referred to as ‘help,’” Poo pointed out. “It’s often taken for granted and not really seen as a full profession deserving of protections and recognition. This is a chance for us to go full-steam on changing the way we value this work across the country.”
June Barrett still knows far too many domestic workers who suffer in silence. “That is why we need this federal protection,” she said. “For these women, for me, for the men who do this work too, for all of us.”
“With the national bill of rights, domestic workers will have the power now, the power of protection,” she added. “The power to say, ‘Me too.’” While she can ask for decent pay and time off, most of her fellow domestic workers are still too afraid to speak up. But one told her that a federal bill offering protections “would be like heaven on earth.”
“We’ll all be singing hallelujah,” she said.