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Domestic workers movement hits speed bump in California

The domestic workers rights movement suffered a significant legislative defeat on Sunday when California Gov.
California Gov. Jerry Brown looks on during a news conference at Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California.
California Gov. Jerry Brown looks on during a news conference at Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California.

The domestic workers rights movement suffered a significant legislative defeat on Sunday when California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed that state's proposed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The law would have mandated that all of California's estimated 200,000 domestic cleaners, health care workers, private cooks and child care professionals receive regular meal breaks and pay for overtime.

Brown indicated his support for domestic worker protections in general, but said the bill left "unanswered questions" about enforcement and a potential increase in the cost of domestic labor. Jill Shenker, field director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), dismissed those concerns. "We've been working with the families and employers of domestic workers all along the way, who feel there are absolutely solutions to the affordability question and ways to make the bill work," she told Lean Forward.

The New York legislation, which was signed into law by Democratic Gov. David Paterson in November 2010, mandates that employers pay overtime to workers who have worked more than 40 hours in a week and institutes a number of protections against unfair labor practices like withheld pay or sexual harassment. "In short," wrote Demos fellow Sharon Lerner, "people who hire domestic workers now have to behave like regular employers."

While Shenker said the NDWA was "very disappointed," with Brown's veto, "organizing over the long haul is nothing new for domestic work."

Many of the NDWA's 35 nationwide affiliates continue to organize around local concerns. Domestic worker groups in San Francisco and Houston are organizing around allegations of employee wage theft, and their New York City migrant workers center affiliate is running a campaign against domestic worker trafficking.

Affiliates in Illinois and Massachusetts, Shenker said, are contemplating state-level campaigns for a New York-style bill of rights, but "there are so many factors around organizing sponsors, and all kinds of things, so I don't want to say for sure that something's happening."

Workers in domestic services have typically enjoyed fewer protections than other workers. California Domestic Worker Coalition director Andrea Mercado said this trend "is really the legacy of racism and discrimination in our country."

Both the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act radically expanded worker protections in the United States but specifically withheld those protections from domestic workers and agricultural laborers. (The latter bill was amended in 1974 to cover domestic work.) Workers in both of those industries were predominantly African-American, and they were excluded from the laws as a concession to Southern segregationists. Today, according to a 2010 report [PDF] by the Excluded Workers Congress, 95 percent of America's 1.8 million domestic workers are "female, foreign born and/or persons of color."

Securing legal protections for those 1.8 million workers presents challenges unlike those facing other industries. Because domestic workers tend not to gather together in large workplaces under a single employer, they usually cannot bargain collectively with management.

"Domestic workers are working with individual employers behind closed doors, and often have multiple employers," said Shenker. She also noted that the relationship between domestic employees and their employers was often far more informal and intimate than in a typical workplace.

"For domestic workers, the employer-employee relationship is not one people think about in terms of a traditional factory—labor and the boss," she said. "There's a lot of intimacy and love that's at play in an employment relationship, and in domestic worker organizing our approach has really been shaped by that truth."

Shenker said part of the Alliance's organizing strategy has involved partnering with employers and "recognizing the mutuality of that relationship." She said that the California campaign had seen "strong partnership with employers and people with disabilities," the latter of whom might require home care.

Indeed, Shenker's account of the NDWA's strategy strongly emphasized community coalition building, particularly with farm workers and immigrants rights communities—two other groups that have historically been excluded from legal work protections. On the same day that Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, Shenker noted, he also vetoed a bill that would have required employers to provide farm workers with adequate access to water and shade from the sun.

Though Brown's veto was a setback for the movement, Mercado predicted that domestic workers rights would only become a more urgent concern in the years to come. "We know that this industry is growing, and that with the aging of the baby boomer population this country is going to have unprecedented need for more and more caregivers," she said. 

Shenker further argued that many of the issues affecting domestic workers are becoming increasingly relevant to other industries. "More and more work across the country is looking more and more like domestic work," she said, citing the growing number of workers who work at home, have multiple employers, and do their work on a contract basis.