In the summer of 2010, New York became the first state in the nation to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The breakthrough legislation established strong minimum standards for domestic workers, culminating nearly seven years of organizing by a broad coalition anchored by the perseverance, skill, and creativity of the domestic worker organizations at its center. Since then California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Oregon have followed with similar legislation, and campaigns are underway in Connecticut and Illinois. These state initiatives represent historic progress in the long-running campaign to bring basic recognition and dignity to this critical workforce. Five years after that first victory movement leaders at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), an organization we co-founded in 2007, have paused to reflect on what the legislative strategy has achieved and where we must go from here.
A Legacy of Exclusion
Every generation of domestic worker organizing and activism since the 1930s has brought attention to the racially motivated exclusion of this workforce from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the impact of those exclusions on their lives. In the 1970s, domestic workers organized successfully to gain protections for most of the workforce under the FLSA, winning the right to minimum wage and overtime (with the significant exclusion of babysitters and workers employed to “provide companionship” to the disabled and elderly). The NLRA bar to the right to bargain collectively remains in force to this day.
The intrinsic power imbalance between employer and employee is heightened in the context of a private home, compounding the absence of legal protections. Domestic workers typically work without a contract. They are routinely given tasks beyond their job description (when there is one). They work long hours without meal or rest breaks, are entitled to no paid holidays or vacation days, are subject to arbitrary termination without severance pay and theft of wages due, and experience high rates of injury on the job without access to workers’ compensation or adequate healthcare. The workforce of nannies, housecleaners, and elder caregivers is also especially vulnerable on account of race, ethnicity, gender, and immigration status and limited English-language proficiency.
The domestic work industry urgently needs to raise and clarify the baseline requirements of the employer-employee relationship, both to empower workers and to hold employers accountable to the legal and ethical responsibilities of their role.
The Legislative Terrain
Movement leaders determined early on that improving the laws governing the conditions of employment was a fundamental precondition to transforming domestic workers’ capacity to negotiate and demand fairness.
From the beginning, as domestic workers came together to discuss what they were experiencing in their workplaces, we were aware of the limitations inherent in advocating for legislative change. Given the current dynamics in Congress, the prospect of moving federal legislation seemed vanishingly remote. Most state legislative processes are not conducive to democratic decision-making or worker participation, either. Committee hearings and votes are often scheduled with less than three days’ notice, and decisions on amendments need to be made in maddeningly short timeframes.