Domestic Workers Rights Movement Picking Up Steam Despite Recent California Defeat


On Tuesday, the Ford Foundation hosted a special launch event in New York introducing a new report detailing the plight of domestic workers in the United States. The report, entitled Home Economics: the Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work, paints a bleak picture about the lives of nannies, home health aides, and housekeepers who toil in American homes. A survey of more than 2,000 domestic workers in 14 metropolitan areas reveals that 67 percent earn less than minimum wage and 25 percent had not had at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep in the prior week. Moreover, the survey found abuse of domestic workers is rampant—though most surveyed were too afraid to speak up about it.

The report, the well-attended Ford Foundation launch event, and support from policymakers indicate that the movement for domestic workers’ rights remains vigilant— even after recently suffering a defeat in California that left organizers reeling. On September 30th, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed AB 889, a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, that would have required over-time pay, adequate sleeping conditions for live-in workers, and both meal and rest breaks.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and other organizations have made state bill of rights legislation part of their overall strategy because, as NDWA Director Ai-jen Poo told RH Reality Check, creating enforceable baseline standards for how domestic workers can be treated is a major part of empowering domestic workers, adding dignity to their work, and ending the abuse that goes on in their invisible and unregulated world. New York became the first state to pass a domestic workers’ bill of rights in 2010—a major victory—and the movement has also made inroads with the Obama administration and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). 

AB889 was California’s second try at passing this legislation—Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the same legislation in 2006. RH Reality Check emailed a key sponsor of AB 889, California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, yesterday to discuss Gov. Brown’s surprising veto. It is clear that Ammiano remains just as vigilant as the NDWA and other organizations at passing this legislation in California and in other states. 

“[Passing this legislation] is not only possible. It is necessary,” Ammiano wrote in his email. “We’re talking about one of the few groups of people left largely unprotected in the workplace. History is on the side of those working for labor rights and that’s what we’re doing. I plan to bring another Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to the Governor and I will work with our supporters to make sure it is one that truly protects them and answers all the Governor’s questions.”

Like NDWA, Asm. Ammiano was surprised at the progressive governor’s decision to reject the bill, particularly given that the questions raised in Brown’s veto message (including concerns about a drafting error as well as questions about how the legislation could hurt families who hire domestic workers) could have been ironed out in the regulatory process.

In reflecting on the veto, Ammiano said:

We spent a lot of effort over two years—in committee hearings and through stakeholder meetings—answering many of the questions he asked in his veto message. We even managed to negotiate changes that swayed disability rights groups to go from hardline opponents to supporters. We thought, and we still think, we did the work to give him a bill that deserved to be signed.

Domestic workers have historically been excluded from major New Deal-era labor legislation including the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Amendments to the FLSA in 1974 did extend over-time and minimum wage provisions to some domestic workers, but continued to exclude home caregivers, live-in domestic workers and nannies—all of which make up a huge share of the domestic workers in the United States. 

As recently as 2007, the Supreme Court held in Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke that a domestic worker who labored three consecutive 24-hour shifts, and regularly worked 70 hours a week for seven dollars an hour, was not entitled to overtime pay.

Legal protections for domestic workers have historically been weak or nonexistent. The domestic workers’ rights movement and its supporters like Asm. Ammiano may indicate that the tide is turning. 

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