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Investing in the Care Economy: Domestic Workers in California Hope for Overtime Pay

Greater public investment is needed to help people with disabilities pay caregivers living wages and overtime pay.

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Nikki Brown-Booker, 49, was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as a child. Today, she uses a wheelchair and she employs domestic workers who help her get dressed, prepare her meals, clean her home and drive her to her work as a Bay Area nonprofit executive.

Brown-Booker is also a vocal supporter of California Senate Bill 1015, a bill that would make permanent a 2013 California law that requires her to pay domestic workers overtime — a protection from which home care workers have historically been excluded.

“I support this legislation, and we need to move it forward,” Brown-Booker told Truthout.

And the legislation is indeed moving forward: On August 18, SB 1015 passed the California state assembly. The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), now heads to the desk of California’s democratic governor, Jerry Brown. The law provides even more protections than new federal regulations that also ensure domestic workers are eligible to earn overtime.

Yet, some organizations who advocate for people with disabilities are opposing SB 1015 — and their opposition has influenced Governor Brown’s decision to veto past attempts in California to secure domestic workers’ overtime protections. These disability rights advocates, including Disability Rights California, argue that requiring overtime pay will cause challenges for people with disabilities — many of whom, like domestic workers, are historically low-income or vulnerable to poverty and may not be able to afford to pay overtime. Indeed, people who identify as having disabilities are twice as likely to be poor as those who do not.

At its core, this opposition to overtime protections for domestic workers reveals the need for greater public investment in care work generally, so that care workers are paid well and those who need care are not economically challenged by hiring domestic workers. Indeed, there is overlap between these communities, as some domestic workers are living with disabilities and are elderly, too. Greater public investment can help all of these communities.

Changes in state law (like the recent victory of SB 1015) are critical to establish baseline protections for domestic workers who have been historically excluded from laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The sector of domestic work is still rife with exploitation, abuse and wage theft. Case in point as to why this legislation is necessary is the story of Etelvina Lopez, 34, who cleans houses in Oakland, California. She often worked 7:30 am to 5 pm, five days per week, and she was paid $150 per week by the woman who employed her. Lopez is raising two daughters on her own.

“I was robbed by my employers,” Lopez told Truthout. “And I do not want to continue as a fooled worker.” Lopez is active in Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), an Oakland-based worker center that focuses on know-your-rights trainings to empower workers like Lopez. MUA also advocates for legislation like SB 1015.

The domestic work sector has been largely unregulated, which has created room for exploitation like that experienced by Lopez. The vast majority of domestic workers are women. Many are women of color who are raising children or providing care for members of their families, in addition to their paid work.

While advocates wait to see if Gov. Brown will sign this state legislation, a small local San Francisco program is beginning to model what greater public investment in the care economy can look like. Support at Home is a new San Francisco initiative that will provide subsidies for people who need care and are lower-income yet still earn too much to qualify for existing state programs. A requirement of any person who receives these subsidies is that they must pay a living wage (approximately $15 per hour), as well as receive educational materials about being a fair employer.

The need for such public investment is clear. A Support at Home fact sheet, developed by Senior and Disability Action, states that in San Francisco, “An estimated 14,419 seniors (called “upper poor”) do not qualify for [existing state programs] but do not have enough income to afford private home care…. Many adults with disabilities cannot accept good jobs because they would lose [Medicaid benefits] and cannot afford privately-paid support.”

The fact sheet also points out that private home care through an agency can cost $25,236 per year in San Francisco, and hiring an individual provider averages $11,784 per year. The average cost of living for a senior in San Francisco is $29,896. Adding the cost of home care to this average, the typical senior would need an annual of income of at least $41,680-$55,132 to afford home care, and more for those with greater needs. An estimated 1,400 middle-income seniors and people with disabilities have difficulty dressing or bathing and could potentially benefit from assistance.

Support at Home has received $1.65 million in funding from the City and County of San Francisco. This funding is expected to support care for up to 240 people. The program will launch in 2017.

“Support at Home will ensure people get support they need, and also make it sustainable for domestic workers. We’re really interested in continuing to work on this and replicate it nationally,” Lindsay Imai Hong, the Bay Area organizer of Hand in Hand, the Domestic Employers Association, told Truthout. Hand in Hand is a national organization of people who employ domestic workers and who also advocate for domestic workers’ rights.

Jessica Lehman, executive director of Senior Disability Action, has been instrumental in launching Support at Home. “We know that people around California and the US are interested in looking to expand or replicate the program,” Lehman told Truthout. “We need to continue to include more poor people in [larger] government-funded programs like In Home Supportive Services (IHSS), but this program is a creative way to provide a little bit of support to the many people who can afford to put some money into home care but need some extra help.”

A wide range of workers’ rights and disability rights groups in San Francisco are backing this initiative, including Jobs With Justice, La Colectiva, Caring Across Generations, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, the Independent Living Resource Center and the IHSS Public Authority.

Support at Home is an important step in the right direction. Despite the need for heightened public investment, the opposite has been occurring in recent decades. In their 2012 book Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, scholars Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, note that “Starting in the 1970s, government boosted a for-profit industry in home care services, opening new conflicts over public funding and the responsibility of the state…. Given public ambivalence over paying for social services for the poor and people of color, especially for labor that many believed should be freely given by wives, mothers and daughters, home care illuminates the continual renegotiation of the terms, funding and institutional structures of federal governance.”

Boris and Klein note that beginning in the 1970s and 80s, “states turned more to outsourcing and the reclassification of attendants as independent providers. Over the years, the work became harder, but fiscal pressures squeezed the workforce.”

“State funded programs allow people to remain at home with dignity, which cannot occur through the exploitation of those who provide care,” Boris, who is Hull Professor of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Barbara, told Truthout. “Only through decent work can we obtain the kind of aid that those who require personal attendants and home care workers deserve. The real conflict of interest is between politicians who refuse to fund such programs and those who benefit from them, workers and consumers alike.”

Support At Home is an important new dimension to the domestic workers’ movement, which has successfully advocated for the enactment of state legislation. Since 2013, four more states have codified protections for domestic workers: Massachusetts in 2014, Connecticut and Oregon in 2015, and Illinois in 2016. Most critically, new federal regulations were approved in 2013 to finally include domestic workers within the overtime provisions of the FLSA.

Domestic workers themselves, particularly women of color, have been instrumental in advocating for SB 1015. For example, Myrla Baldonado, a former domestic worker who is now an organizer with the Pilipino Worker Center (PWC), has been organizing trips for domestic workers to advocate for the bill in Sacramento, California’s capital. One trip in March included more than 70 workers, employers and allies who successfully reached over 25 legislative offices — including every member of the Senate Labor Committee. Advocates featured the powerful testimonies of PWC caregivers and employers. Their advocacy earned the support of the key leaders of the Asian Pacific Islander (API), Black and Latino Caucuses, according to Baldonado.

“Our advocacy in Sacramento helps convey the powerful stories of the benefit of the overtime law to the workers [and] the families that employ them,” Baldonado said.

Plus, new local programs like Support at Home reflect the potential for the movement for domestic workers’ rights to foster cultural and social transformation in very concrete ways, beyond just legislation. Hand in Hand has also secured signatures from 150,000 employers of domestic workers in California for the Fair Care Pledge, a document that urges people who employ domestic workers to pay $15 per hour plus overtime, set clear expectations in the employment relationship, and provide paid time off.

As a recipient of care, Brown-Booker is optimistic about the future of the domestic workers’ movement.

“Even though there’s been opposition [to SB1015], there’s been awareness built on both the part of the employer and employee — there is more empathy for each other,” Brown-Booker told Truthout. “It’s important to remember that this movement is really all of us against a bigger system.”

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