The nannies, housecleaners and home care workers who fought for generations to be included in federal labor protections will take a big step toward this goal when Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jayapal introduce the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights this week.
It would require employers to provide a written agreement, which can be based on a Department of Labor template, with clear expectations about pay, duties, schedules and time-off policies. And the bill would make sure employers use fair scheduling practices so workers don’t lose pay because of last-minute scheduling changes.
Domestic workers should already have workplace rights, but they were deliberately excluded from many foundational labor laws made during the New Deal era. Southern congressmen refused to support the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act if the bills included equal protections for the predominantly black and Latino farm workers and black domestic workers.
Over the generations these workers fought for equal protections. In 1968, a civil rights activist and black domestic worker, Dorothy Lee Bolden, created an influential labor group called the National Domestic Workers Union which worked to legitimize the profession and secure political victories, while representing more than 10,000 domestic workers at its peak.
Despite the progress, when I first started organizing domestic workers in New York City in 1998 the work force still struggled in the shadows of the formal economy — lacking clear labor agreements or consistent hours, and without job security or access to benefits. These workers have always been predominately women of color, now from across the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and Africa. And their experiences have allowed them to foreshadow trends shaping the economy.
No one understands the future of work better than domestic workers. As the gig economy has grown over the last 30 years, more and more professions look like theirs. From the freelancer to the ride share driver, such work is also characterized by conditions like long or unpredictable hours, stagnant wages, disappearing benefits, lack of job security and limited rights. Domestic workers have seen this coming — both the problems and the solutions.
Given this context, it makes sense that domestic workers, who often work alone with no human resources departments, would pave the way for policies that could help other workers who would otherwise fall through the cracks. It was domestic workers who founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2007, which I run. And they led the drafting and lobbying around the bills of rights that have recently become law in nine states and Seattle. Now it’s time for Congress to act.
Over the past two years, councils of nannies, housecleaners and home care workers in my organization have consulted their peers about the problems they face at work — from a lack of paid sick days to sexual harassment — so that their policy solutions could be incorporated in the federal bill. And domestic workers from our 64 affiliate groups provided input, as did workers from around the country. The work of Dorothy Bolden has continued to blossom.
The bill is innovative in imagining how these protections could be put into practice. It would award grants to community organizations that domestic workers trust so they can work with government agencies to inform workers about their new rights and support enforcement. Importantly, the bill also increases federal funding so low-income people can still afford caregiving.
Consider one woman who would benefit. As a live-in nanny for three years, Lara worked long hours, sometimes up to 20 hours a day, and was never paid for the extra hours. Her lost wages totaled $350 a week on average. One night after returning to her employer’s home from a family trip, where she worked the entire time, they fired her without notice because she had asked for Easter Sunday off earlier that week.
She would have been homeless that night if her friend hadn’t helped her out. The bill of rights would require employers to give live-in nannies a written termination notice and at least 30 days of lodging or severance pay, so what happened to Lara never happens again.
The bill would also allow domestic workers to earn seven paid sick days, and establish a new independent wage and standards board which would make recommendations on their behalf to the Department of Labor.
No legislation can fully address every workplace injustice. But by protecting against sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination based on sex, race, religion or national origin, this bill would catalyze a long-overdue culture change so domestic work would finally be seen as real work, deserving of professionalism and respect.
This is the work that makes all other work possible. Congress should quickly pass this bill so these precarious and undervalued jobs can become good, dignified ones.