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Time for Domestic Workers to Enjoy Equal Rights and Recognition

As we increasingly rely on cheap domestic labor, we are allowing abusive employers to hold deportation over workers’ heads to exploit them.

Domestic workers help sustain the rest of the American workforce; in the words of activists, their work makes all other work possible. But many live on less than minimum wage without overtime pay, sometimes working for 20 hours straight with little more than a floor mat to sleep on. In order to protect those who care for our rapidly aging population, activists are calling for the federal government to enact legislation to end the inhumane treatment that’s breaking down the domestic workforce every day.

In mid-March, President Obama officially nominated Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, to take over for Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who resigned in January. His record suggests he’ll be an ally to domestic workers, and his nomination may mean the government is getting ready to amp up protections.

The President has already said that Perez will be instrumental in raising the minimum wage, but that will only benefit domestic workers if standards are written and enforced. There’s reason to be hopeful, though; Perez’s record is strikingly progressive, as federal nominees go. He’s tackled police brutality, voter discrimination and racial profiling at the Department of Justice, and championed a domestic worker bill of rights in a Maryland County.

A sprinkling of state-level victories is also a hopeful sign that the tide may be turning for domestic worker protections. The Illinois Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, one of five state bills in varying stages around the country, just got an extension with a 9-4 vote in the Illinois General Assembly Labor Committee, and will likely pass through the Senate. The bill would be the second of its kind in the country, and a small step for workers who have endured decades of discrimination from the most basic labor laws, agencies and private employers. Still, domestic labor advocates have a long road ahead of them.

“This culture doesn’t value domestic work as real work,” Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) Ai-jen Poo told Truthout. “The workers have so little leverage or power, and lay on top of that the vulnerability of immigration issues and social inequalities. When you think about what it was like for women to begin to get the public to acknowledge that domestic violence is a reality, it gives you a sense of what’s going on here.”

Theoretically, domestic workers are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay, but what happens in the privacy of employers’ homes varies enormously, according to the first statistical study of working conditions for domestic workers published in November 2012. The report, “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work,” shows that that many workers are being abused verbally and physically or their contracts broken without recourse.

In 2011, President Obama promised to include the country’s 2 million plus in-home and elder-care workers in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Until it’s amended, a worker providing full-time medical care and companionship to an elderly patient is afforded the same wholly insufficient labor protections as a high school babysitter. They live on near poverty wages, suffer some of the highest levels of workplace injury in the country, and almost 65 percent have no health insurance.

The Department of Labor proposal is now in the final stages of review in the White House Office of Management and Budget and should be ruled on in a little more than a year. Experts say there’s little time to waste.

Our country is aging more quickly than ever, with one person turning 65 every 8 seconds, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that growth will demand a whopping 70 percent increase in personal care and home health aides from 2010 to 2020.

That staggering need is all the more reason to make sure these become quality jobs that keep workers healthy and allow them to support their families. Still, the 2013 budget makes no mention of domestic work at all. Perez’s nomination, however, might mean that the President has labor and immigration reform in mind.

While on Maryland’s Montgomery County Council, Perez advocated for a domestic worker bill of rights that ultimately passed. The bill mandates written contracts that spell out wages and benefits, a guaranteed private room with a lock, and more; it definitely goes beyond the terms in the five state bills currently up for review in Hawaii, Oregon, Massachusetts, California and Illinois.

New York’s domestic worker protection bill, enacted in 2010, was the first in this series and took a full six years to pass. If Perez should come on board, the Department of Labor might follow his lead to prioritize this workforce.

The five state-level bills demand similar terms; the Illinois bill, for instance, calls for minimum-wage pay, pay for all hours worked, at least one day off a week, meal and rest periods, paid time off, and the right to be free from sexual harassment. A Chicago domestic worker, Lisa Thomas, said that some of the rights they lack are so basic, the simplicity of their demands shocks legislators.

Poo told Truthout these bills are nowhere near enough; they’re the first steps to establish basic standard practices to keep this essential workforce from burning out. What workers really need is attention from the federal government that acknowledges that this work is essential and that it’s performed by human beings.

In a telephone conversation with Truthout, Sarah Leberstein of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) agreed with Poo that winning protection for in-home and elder-care workers under the FLSA should be the first order of business for Solis’ successor. The exclusion’s origin underscores how badly we need to move away from it. Southerners who wanted to prevent the New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act from benefitting black people pushed for and won the exclusion of farm and domestic laborers in 1935. They preferred to keep black people entrenched in the economic wasteland that slavery left them in, and we haven’t made it much easier for poor minority workers since. Caregivers, most of whom are immigrant women and women of color, comprise one of the fastest growing workforces in the nation, but state and federal labor policies haven’t caught up to the skyrocketing demand for these services. Many home-care workers are barely surviving, sometimes making as little as $110 for 24 hours of work, Chicago worker Myrla Baldonado told Truthout.

Meanwhile, high unemployment rates in the US are a constant point of contention. This is an opportunity to create good jobs to lift droves of people out of poverty, but time and time again, we’ve chosen cheap labor for employers over the well-being of the workers.

“Our constituency is mostly working through the private pay gray market, the most informal, shadowed part of the care sector,” Poo averred. “We’re proposing that the federal government create the funding for two million new quality jobs in home-care, with living wages and benefits, in the next ten years to begin to address the tremendous need for care that is coming our way. We have a jobs crisis that we need to address and there’s the solution for you.”

There’s little benefit to working on the books for an agency, according to Baldonado. In fact, agencies are actually lobbying against minimum wage and overtime pay, and are some of the most aggressive opponents of reform, Poo told Truthout.

Lobbyists argue that wage hikes will make long-term care unaffordable for the people who need it. No one denies that long-term care is expensive, especially when employers are sufficiently paying workers. But the longer employers are permitted to go on avoiding sufficient compensation, the longer we prioritize their lives over their workers’ lives.

“Clients are free to make you do whatever they want,” Baldonado told Truthout. “I told the agency, and all they said was ‘be more assertive.’ There’s no advocacy. They tell you how to treat the clients, but there’s nothing about how the clients should treat you.”

Baldonado is from the Philippines, and said that clients often spoke to her like a baby regardless of the fact that she speaks English very well. This isn’t even the worst of it; people who don’t speak English and aren’t familiar with their employers’ neighborhood have virtually no way to seek help.

But thanks to outreach, workers are increasingly accessing groups like NDWA; the group began with 12 small organizations that met in Atlanta, and just five years later, there are 35 affiliate chapters meeting in 12 states. Still, there’s a long way to go from the rumblings of reform – with bills in just five states – to comprehensive protection for domestic workers nationwide.

Eric Rodriguez, director of the Latino Union in Chicago, sat in a room full of domestic workers in Washington to watch President Obama give his State of the Union address. Rodriguez was disheartened by the president’s focus on highly skilled immigrant labor, and said that reform tailored to that workforce would exclude his constituency, especially the women.

“If an immigration proposal comes out that requires work history, we will oppose it because domestic workers who only have verbal agreements can’t prove anything,” Rodriguez told Truthout.

As we increasingly rely on cheap domestic labor, we are allowing abusive employers to hold deportation over workers’ heads to exploit them. Making matters worse, immigration-reform legislation has yet to acknowledge, in any real way, how much our country relies on these workers. Poo testified at a Congressional hearing on immigration reform on March 18 to promote a path to citizenship for undocumented domestic workers.

According to Home Economics, the threat of deportation and being fired keeps virtually all workers silent when employers abuse them, break contracts, or don’t write contracts in the first place. In fact, 91 percent of the 2,000 workers interviewed in the study said they don’t complain at work for fear of losing their jobs, and 85 percent of undocumented immigrants don’t speak up about abuse for fear that their immigration status will be used against them.

The study found that 36 percent of live-in workers were verbally abused in the past year, and many others have been threatened, subjected to racial slurs, or sexually abused at work. Until we begin to articulate the real way this work fits into our nation’s economy, workers will be forced to operate in these outrageous conditions.

“I think the new feminist narrative has to be about women as real drivers of the economy and leaders at every level from lower-wage work to business owners,” Poo said. “Women are more than half of the paid workforce and they’re still doing the lion’s share of family and caregiving work. The feminist narrative is the narrative of this generation.”

Lisa Thomas, a domestic worker for the past 21 years, told Truthout in a phone interview that she’s “fighting for her sisters” as a trained volunteer counselor to Jamaican and African women at the Chicago Coalition for Household Workers.

“Some of them are being sexually abused,” Thomas said. “They’re fearful of being deported, losing their visas. A couple have family back in Africa who are HIV positive, and they’re sending half their money back home for treatment. Somebody needs to speak up for them because they won’t speak up for themselves.”

Thomas is no stranger to abuse herself. She spent a year caring for an elderly woman on oxygen whose alcoholic son routinely made her uncomfortable with racist comments. When he finally came at her with a butcher knife, spouting racial slurs, and threatening to kill her because he didn’t want a black woman in his house, Thomas ran for her life, leaving her purse and shoes behind. She’s had numerous harrowing experiences, yet she says she’s not deterred from continuing in this line of work.

“I love my seniors, and somebody needs to be there for them,” Thomas said. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to take care of somebody. You have to have a gift, love, tolerance and patience.”

There are plenty of willing workers in this country, many just as dedicated and inspired by what they do as Thomas. Whatever their motivation for doing this work, they deserve support from the federal government and respect from employers. People are working unimaginably long hours under extreme physical and emotional duress in this country without the opportunity to gain independence or citizenship.

We must eradicate the massive socioeconomic and racial inequality plaguing this workforce, and to do it, we’ll need to have a real conversation about what the workers and the families they care for need, with representatives from both parties present. Until now, that wasn’t remotely possible; the fact that this population has been so invisible for so long has kept this collective voice from developing.

“This is going to be the generation where we make a lot of historic breakthroughs,” Poo said. “I so deeply believe that [domestic labor] is real skilled work and it has to be recognized.”

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