Will the California Disability Community Support Domestic Workers’ Legislation?

Social movements are messy. There is often strategic disagreement among groups who have the same overarching goals. An example of this is the relationship between the California disability community and the coalition advocating for domestic workers’ rights in California.

The 2012 California domestic workers’ bill of rights guarantees rest periods and overtime pay for the thousands of mostly foreign-born women in California who work inside of private homes caring for the elderly, disabled, children, and doing domestic work, such as cleaning and cooking for families. The bill was initially opposed by Disability Rights California (DRC) and other disability advocacy groups, which expressed concern about the financial implications of the regulation of caregiver employment for disabled and senior persons who, as a group, already earn far less than the average Californian. Ultimately, all disability advocacy groups remained neutral on the 2012 legislation.

Now, there is a renewed campaign in California for a domestic workers’ bill of rights for 2013-2014. And again, unless the same concerns about cost are resolved, it is unclear whether the disability community will support the legislation, remain neutral, or oppose it.

“We’re talking about balancing the needs and rights of two low-income populations,” Deborah Doctor, Legislative Advocate at Disability Rights California, told RH Reality Check this week. “Our greatest wish would be that we could support basic rights for these workers and the only reason we’re in conflict is over who pays for it. That’s why we’re separated on this issue.”

And while the domestic workers’ legislation would not apply to California’s In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program, a state program that provides care for low-income disabled and elderly persons, Doctor feels there are still middle-income disabled and senior persons who would struggle because of the regulations.

Americans with disabilities face stark economic struggles. Doctor wrote a compelling letter to the California Senate Appropriations Committee in 2011 in reaction to the domestic workers’ bill, pointing out that many disabled Californians earn less than $33,000 per year. “The people with disabilities who would be affected by this bill have more in common economically with the domestic workers than they do with the wealthy whose abuse of domestic workers was the impetus for this bill,” Doctor wrote.

Significantly, opposition from the California disability rights community has influenced transformations inside the domestic workers’ movement as well; evidence of this can be found in a relatively new campaign known as Caring Across Generations. This campaign, a joint effort of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, and other groups, posits that the rights of domestic workers, the disabled and the elderly are not exclusive. Caring Across Generations seeks to protect Medicare (which covers some disabled people), Medicaid, Social Security, home care jobs, and workers’ rights.

Caring Across Generations also wants to make inroads in five key areas: increased training and job opportunity for workers who care for the disabled and elderly; affordability of care for the disabled and elderly; a path to legalization for immigrant workers as many caregivers are foreign-born; job quality; and job creation.

“We should be fighting for dignity for aging population, for the disabled, and for workers,” Sarita Gupta Co-Director of Caring Across Generations told me recently. “We can win dignity all the way around.”

California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who sponsored the 2012 legislation and is a staunch backer of the domestic workers’ movement, also told RH Reality Check that he is a “passionate supporter of the disability rights community and plans to do everything he can to make sure they are comfortable with the bill.”

An alliance between caregivers and those who seek care is important, to protect both the workers and the vulnerable in their care. Lack of unity could make it easier for outside forces to pit the two groups against each other. The 2012 domestic workers’ bill ultimately failed after Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it, but Brown’s veto seemed mysterious to many advocates who fought for the bill of rights, particularly given his generally progressive record. Groups who consistently oppose increased labor regulations, like the California Chamber of Commerce, opposed the 2012 bill as well but in his veto message Brown primarily cited concerns of the disability community about the potential for increased care costs.

Doctor is also perplexed by the veto message, given that Brown has actually cut services to the disability community. His veto message “felt like someone was trying to drive a wedge between us [and the domestic workers’ advocates],” she said.

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  • cmarie

    Having worked as a caregiver for the elderly and disabled, including clients with alzheimer’s, I can tell you it is difficult work. If you are working alone with someone, the fact that you are having lunch, or need to use the bathroom yourself is pretty much your problem. The client may need you at any minute. Twice I’ve been taking care of female clients and had to help their husbands get up. One fell. The other decided my hours were a good time to do his gardening because if he couldn’t get up, he knew I would help him. A few weeks ago, I was bathing a hospice patient and at the same time trying to keep her four year old granddaughter from coming into the room to show us her drawing (!). Patients with dementia can haul off and hit you at any time. Certainly, I would support any legislation that guaranteed better treatment for domestic workers but frankly, I really can’t imagine how (outside a well staffed retirement/nursing home) it could be enforced. In the event that a client lives with a spouse (who isn’t going to need you himself) or a child, you can be sure that person is going to take full advantage of your hours to leave and enjoy their own break. That’s why I just can’t see how any of it could be enforced… at least not in private homes.

    • cmarie

      Ironically, after I left yesterday’s comment I received a call from my employer and was told not to come in at all Thursday because the client has an appointment. I’m not sick but I’m going to lose 9 of my 42 weekly hours. Those are hours I depend on. I won’t get paid and have to cancel my childcare arrangements. That’s another way domestic workers are treated on another level entirely from most employees in the U.S. Also, of course we can be fired at any time for any reason or no reason. I