Last month, presidential candidate and Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jayapal put forth a bill called the “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act.” The bill, which would cover some two million domestic workers in our country, would give people who work in in-home care (nannies, house cleaners, elderly caretakers and those who care for disabled people) basic labor protections that have not yet extended to them in the workforce. The bill has gained over 40 co-sponsors in the House and in the Senate.
Domestic workers are an essential part of how families operate. They take care of children, the elderly, the sick, and look after the home, an increasingly important job, as the two-income households becomes more of a reality for families to combat rising costs of living and stagnant wages. However, because such workers are employed in domestic situations and not public spaces, the vast majority of their work is unseen. This makes them particularly vulnerable to workplace exploitation, sexual harassment, and wage theft. Most domestic workers don’t have paid time off, sick days, unemployment insurance, or access to employer-sponsored health care.
The vast majority of in-home workers are immigrant women and women of color, who have families of their own to feed. And yet, should one of their kids get sick, they can’t stay home to care for their child unless they are able to afford not having a day’s worth of wages — and they might not even be able to take them to the doctor because many do not have health care.
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, therefore, is long overdue. So, what does it stipulate? Here’s why the bill matters and what it would do for both domestic workers and the families that employ them.
The History Behind The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights
For almost 100 years, domestic workers have been left out of basic labor protections in the workplace, including everything from mandated lunch breaks to the 40-hour work week.
This exclusion was done on purpose. In the 1930’s, during the New Deal, labor protections (something that American socialists had been advocating for and organizing on for decades and decades) were starting to become law.
The National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, providing for labor protections we accept as basic working conditions today. However, the bill left out a huge swathe of American workers: farm laborers and domestic workers. This was done at the urging of the Southern Dixiecrats, a coalition of southern Democrats who were reticent to provide Black southerners more rights than they had. They told then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt that if the NLRA included domestic workers and farmers, they wouldn’t sign the bill. So FDR backed off. And for nearly 100 years, domestic workers haven’t had overtime protections, health care, a contract, or often, access to unemployment insurance.
What is the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act?
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights gives employees rights that they have long not been afforded, including paid overtime and guaranteed safe and healthy working conditions. The bill ensures domestic workers sign an actual contract for their time working for a family, much like any other employee would do.
The bill also offers protection against sexual harassment and hotline service to report sexual harassment. It also requires written contracts for people who are going to work in the home, access to affordable health care and retirement benefits, and grants for workforce training.That means that the nanny can’t be asked to clean the kitchen if it’s not in her contract, and the house cleaner can’t be expected to look after an infant should she have no infant care training.
While the bill doesn’t offer a higher wages or raises, overtime protections and mandatory paid overtime would help make sure that domestic workers are being fairly paid for their labor. While most domestic workers make around the minimum wage — $11 an hour — most people know that the minimum wage is not livable, says Carolyn Silveira, the Director of Communications and Digital Strategy at Hand in Hand Domestic Employers Network.
“If you take into account all of the overtime [that domestic workers do] or the lack of clear scheduling, what people may be told they are being paid may not actually be their actual hourly pay at the end of the day,” she says.
After all, domestic work is often done behind closed doors, and the relationship between employer and employee is more close-knit and personal than, say, someone who works at a Jo-Anns Fabrics. While someone who works at Jo-Ann’s can go to the labor department in their city to file a complaint of harassment, that same opportunity is not necessarily afforded to domestic workers.
“If you were a nanny, who would you go to to file that claim?” asks Stacy Kono, a Network Director at Hand in Hand Domestic Employers Network. This bill aims to help make sure that domestic workers do have someone to call. In the end, what the bill gives domestic workers is not all that radical in terms of what other employees are afforded to regularly. The problem is that the workers don’t have those protections yet at all.
It also includes things people might not realize that domestic workers don’t have access to — like mandated lunch breaks. As it stands, domestic workers do not have any mandated rest or lunch breaks in their workplaces. “That is really something that is particular to this work,” says Kono. “Oftentimes, people see the work of nannies or house cleaners as not needing meal and rest breaks, because the misguided perceptions of the value of this work.”
None of these policy ideas are radical. In fact, they’re protections offered to employees of almost every other industry in the country.
Why Parents Should Support The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act
The biggest reason why parents should support the bill is if they are domestic workers who are also parents themselves. But for parents who work outside the home and rely on nannies and other care for their families, there are many reasons to get behind the legislation.
Contracts, in particular, are something that parents should absolutely get behind, per Kono.
“I talked to someone in Seattle a few months ago who said it makes so much sense for there to be a working agreement between his family and their nanny, because he gets to have a work agreement. Why shouldn’t his worker, as well?”
Contracts between nannies and their employers creates transparency, clarity, and a clear set of expectations in the workplace. It adds professionalism to some of the most important labor in the country. Those agreements that many of us have with our employers, which include allotted sick days and paid leave, should be afforded to those who take care of our kids.
“You want to be in the best condition you are to look after your own children,” says Silveira.”You also want the person you employ to take care of your children to have as much rest as possible and stability as possible. And domestic workers are parents, too. They have their own families to provide for, care for, and manage.”
In other words, letting your employees take a lunch break or be able to bring their kid to the doctor on an off-hour will help them be better employees in the workplace, too. Besides, ensuring that a person who is around your kid for eight hours a day can also go to the doctor if they feel unwell is a basic way to protect you, your employee, and your child.
There is one surprising reason that parents should support the bill, though, that doesn’t have much to do with the nanny/parent relationship.
“It’s about bringing the workforce into the 21st century. This is actually not only playing catch-up for the last 100 years, but skipping forward, really. More and more people’s careers are looking more similar to domestic work in the sense of the gig economy. The gig economy is unprotected,” says Silveira. In fact, most labor laws are based on a system of large companies and office spaces. But many people aren’t working in offices anymore.
“We all know and see that that shift is happening. Right now, I think that if this bill passes, domestic workers are going to be able to be ahead, potentially, of the people who are going to employ them,” sys Silveira. “We have people who hire nannies who are freelance graphic designers. Who do they file a sexual harassment claim to?”
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