When we advance the rights of domestic workers, we advance the rights of all women and all workers,” Tatiana Bejar reminded us at yesterday’s webinar. Tatiana spoke as part of a panel of organizers and academics leading on multiple fronts in the fight for domestic workers’ rights — before, during and after COVID-19.
Many labor laws passed in the New Deal area explicitly excluded domestic workers. Today, protections that have been legally guaranteed in most occupational sectors for nearly a century are still denied to those who do perhaps the most essential work of all: raising our children, caring for our family members, and keeping our homes clean and healthy. Our panelists explained how, as COVID-19 shines a spotlight on the precarious conditions of domestic work, the current moment presents both new urgency and new opportunity to confront institutionalized racism and sexism and win long-overdue protections for this essential yet excluded workforce.
Debra Lancaster and Elaine Zundl, Executive Director and Research Director at Rutgers’ Center for Women and Work and recent co-authors of Domestic Workers in New Jersey, kicked off our panel with a synopsis of the report’s findings. The report incorporates the direct experiences of over 400 domestic workers, compiled through a survey developed by workers’ advocacy organizations and executed by workers within their communities. Findings are intended to guide the development of an improved, comprehensive Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights — an organizing and policy tool already codified as law by ten states and municipalities, most recently including Philadelphia and Seattle.
Debra and Elaine framed the results with some illuminating statistics on the demographics of care work: 97% of domestic workers are women, 50% are immigrants, and 62% are people of color. More than 80% of survey respondents indicated that care work was their primary source of income, though many shared that multiple employers made it difficult to access benefits such as health insurance or paid vacation. Common concerns pointed to a lack of protection under OSHA when working in a private home, the rarity of a transparent written contract, and the extraordinary prevalence of wage theft: 57% of respondents reported some form of wage theft. Only 39% of respondents felt able to enforce their own rights on the job.
These needs are reflected in the principles of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which New Labor community organizer Jenifer Garcia broke down for us. Key principles include the elimination of legal exclusions, health and safety safeguards for private homes, portable benefits systems that multiple employers can pay into, and state reforms to worker’s compensation law that ensure all domestic workers are covered.
Tatiana Bejar, New York City Organizer with Hand in Hand Domestic Employers’ Network, shared lessons and resources from another front of the domestic workers’ rights movement — mobilizing employers in support of the workers they hire and depend on. Hand in Hand was founded by domestic employers who found little guidance on how to treat and compensate their employees fairly. One of the organization’s first initiatives was the training program My Home is Someone’s Workplace, designed to help employers create an intentional and fair employee relationship in the intimate, often blurred work environment of a family home.
Hand in Hand goes beyond employer education to organize political action in solidarity with campaigns for racial and immigrant justice, including the fight to end family separation and the Black Lives Matter movement (one recent Hand in Hand campaign pushed employers to provide additional paid leave to Black domestic workers dealing with the personal and collective trauma of violent policing). Tatiana explained that Hand in Hand’s mission is one of culture change: “for employers to see themselves as allies and use their privilege to change the industry, while centering the experiences of people they employ.”
Multiple speakers emphasized that COVID-19 calls for additional action by both employers and policymakers. Virgilio Aran of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance pointed out that many domestic workers are undocumented and therefore ineligible for unemployment. In the past six months, some advocacy groups have also coordinated mutual aid, distributing food and raising funds for unemployed domestic workers. Hand in Hand has created a pledge for employers to continue to pay their employees to stay home and stay safe. But several of today’s panelists spoke to the need for legislative action to bring comprehensive relief to all excluded workers.
Domestic workers who have returned to work since the state’s stay-at-home order was lifted are also in urgent need of protection. Employers who depend on their services may not disclose when a family member falls sick, and not all employers and agencies provide adequate PPE. New Labor and other worker justice organizations have called for a state executive order guaranteeing the right to refuse unsafe work without fear of retaliation.
Debra Lancaster closed our conversation with a question: “What might a caring recovery look like?” To join the fight for a domestic workers’ Bill of Rights and the right to refuse unsafe work, visit the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and New Labor websites.
If you employ a cleaner, nanny, home health aide or other care worker in your home, join other employers in the Hand in Hand program to learn and take action in solidarity with domestic workers. Register with the portable benefits system Alia to directly pay into health insurance and other benefits for your employee! With questions about employment practices, reach out to Tatiana at firstname.lastname@example.org. There were more than 56 people who attended this webinar.
Center for Women and Work Report on Domestic Workers in New Jersey: https://smlr.rutgers.edu/
“Our nannies, housecleaners, caregivers need a Bill of Rights” Op-ed by Deb Lancaster and Rocío Alejandra Ávila: https://www.nj.com/opinion/
Center for Women and Work website: https://smlr.rutgers.edu/
COVID-19 resources for employers: https://domesticemployers.org/
Sample contracts for domestic workers https://domesticemployers.org/