May 22, 2013
Labor Rights for Domestic Workers: Is This Even a Question? Guest Post by Jillian Ezra
As a child, my sister and I had somewhat of a different educational experience than most kids. We attended what is now called UCLA Lab School, which is UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies' laboratory for research and innovation in education. One of the school's distinguishing factors is its unwavering commitment to diversity, which we experienced by going to school with a wide range of kids from different ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic classes. Our schoolmates included the children of people like Sally Field, Steven Spielberg, and our housekeeper. When my parents took me to a friend's house on a play date, I never knew whether we would be going to a huge mansion in Beverly Hills or a small apartment in south Culver City. And it didn't matter. We were all kids playing the same games at recess. Diversity enriched our learning environment, and strengthened our community.
My mom taught us to give the clothes we outgrew to our housekeeper, Dora, so her kids could wear them. They were a bit younger than we were, but we would see them wear our clothes to school for years. Seeing them in my clothes around the age of six solidified what I had started to pick up--they were less fortunate than we were. I asked my mom why they didn't have their own clothes, and my mom explained that it was because they didn't have as much money as we did. There are lots of things that we got that they didn't get. Why? Because they came here from Guatemala with nothing. My heart sank for them. I realized how unfair that was. As far as my childhood self was concerned, Dora and her daughters were real people who had real lives and shared parts of them with my family.
Just last year I was going through a tough time. One day I was at my mom's house and broke down crying in front of my computer. Dora happened to be there and she rushed in. "What's wrong?" she asked in her thick accent. "Oh nothing, I'm fine," I said. I wasn't fine though and Dora knew this. She grabbed me and held me while I sobbed and told me everything was going to be okay, and she didn't let go. Dora is a part of our family. She cooks us tamales at Christmas and brings us small presents every year. We give her and her children Christmas gifts too and dozens of pieces of clothing throughout the year. But Dora is also our employee. We give her an end-of-year bonus, we pay her salary, and we make sure she has time for lunch and breaks while she’s out our home.
I recently learned during my social justice fellowship at Bend the Arc that due to a loophole in labor laws, Dora and other domestic workers aren't entitled to the same basic labor protections such as meal and rest breaks, overtime pay, and paid days of rest that every other worker is entitled to. When I learned that there were live-in housekeepers, nannies and caregivers who were working 24 hours straight without breaks, sleeping in dismal conditions and for just a few hours at a time, and were unable to even take breaks, and that this was all legal, I was dumbfounded and deeply saddened.
Live-in housekeepers and nannies are mostly immigrant women, and they do not have the bargaining power to arrange their living conditions with their employers before starting work. Even if a housekeeper, caregiver or nanny is promised decent working and living conditions, the current labor laws do not apply to them. Therefore, the employer does not legally have to come through on those promises.
What saddened me most was that this loophole that keeps Dora and other domestic workers from having basic labor protections was not accidental. It is steeped in racism and gluttony. Under the 1935 National Labor Relations act, private sector workers gained the ability to create unions and the right to collectively bargain. Household workers and agricultural laborers, who were largely African-American since the end of the Civil War, were intentionally left out to satisfy Southern lawmakers who relied on their economic servitude. Sadly but unsurprisingly, the demographics have not changed in the last 78 years. Women, immigrants, and African-Americans still make up approximately 95% of the domestic work force.
What will the Bill do?
The California Domestic Workers Coalition is working to close that loophole by trying to pass the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (AB241). This is the second measure of its kind in the country. The bill was passed already in New York . The Bill of Rights would provide housekeepers, childcare providers, and caregivers with:
Secondly, how can the people who have such a huge impact on us and our children they not protected by basic labor laws? Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz of Uri l’Tzedek, an orthodox social justice organization puts it this way:
"How can we give the keys to our homes - and entrust the welfare of our aging parents and young children! - to our domestic workers, and yet not respect them enough to secure their basic rights and dignity?"
In some families, they basically raise the children while the parents work. At the very least, they enable women who want to have both children and a career to fulfill the modern woman's dream of "having it all." They are in many cases the backbone of a family that isn't even theirs. Yet they are denied basic rights granted to high schoolers who scoop ice cream at Haagan Daaz.
When I learned that the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights had been passed by both the California Assembly and Senate last year only to be vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, I was again dumbfounded. Why would the governor actively deny people who are so important in the functioning of our households the rights afforded to every of other worker in the state of California? In his veto message, Brown wrote that the bill "raises a number of unanswered questions," such as the economic effect it could have on disabled and elderly people who rely on their cheap and constant in-home services, or those domestic workers who would lose their jobs because their employers could no longer afford to pay them. How would the State even enforce labor laws in private homes? Additionally, a drafting error would have cost the state more than $200 million per year because the bill included In Home Supportive Services workers. Brown wrote, "in the face of consequences both unknown and unintended, I find it more prudent to do the studies before considering an untested legal regime for those that work in our homes."
His comments seem reasonable to me, although many argue that he was being his unpredictable self, or just stalling the issue. Since then, the California Domestic Workers Coalition has worked to address Governor Brown's concerns by conducting a national survey of domestic workers which was published in 2012, and a California-specific report which was published on May 9, 2013 called “Home Truths--Domestic Workers in California.” The Coalition is also working closely with Governor Brown's office to make sure his concerns continue to be addressed.
Where does it stand now?
The California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is currently back in the Appropriations Committee in the Assembly, and it must be out by May 31, 2013 to move to the Senate. The California Domestic Workers Coalition hopes that Governor Brown will be able to sign the Bill by the October 13, 2013 legislative deadline. But they need your help!
As Jews and as employers of domestic workers, we need to speak up for those whose voices can't be heard. Here are some simple things you can do right away:
Everyone (including employers):