Domestic Workers, Overtime Pay, and the Perceived ‘Cost Problem’


On Thursday, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) signed AB 241, a law securing overtime protection for California’s 200,000 domestic workers—mostly immigrant women who work as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers in private homes. This is the third domestic workers’ law to pass the California legislature in the past seven years. The first two such laws were vetoed, first in 2006 by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who also secretly fathered a child with his housekeeper in 1998), and then, to the surprise of many advocates, in 2012 by the politically progressive Gov. Jerry Brown.

Thus the legislation that Gov. Brown signed last week is the result of particular tenacity. It also highlights the conflict between multiple economically struggling groups. After months of back and forth between advocates and California legislators, the 2013 domestic workers’ legislation became watered down, limited to just securing overtime pay for a worker who puts in more than nine hours per day or 45 hours per week. In contrast, the 2012 legislation included overtime as well as provisions for meal and rest breaks, workers’ compensation, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep for live-in household workers, and use of kitchen facilities so that workers could prepare food. Food insecurity, lack of sleep, and on-the-job injury have been noted as problems for domestic workers.

Even after the law was pared down to just an overtime bill, disability rights advocates in California couldn’t get on board, for fear that the legislation could cost people with disabilities and their families too much money. The California law requires that a private household employing a domestic worker must pay that worker overtime if she works more than nine hours per day, or more than 45 hours per week. Given that many people with disabilities who need to hire in-home care are also in poverty or are low-income, some disability rights advocates feel that cost is too much for people with disabilities to bear. Making the issue more difficult, Gov. Brown has cut low-cost care services for people with disabilities in California.

However, this disharmony between people with disabilities and domestic workers over basic economic protections is unfortunate. The historic failure to value domestic labor has fostered the belief that overtime and other worker protections are “too costly” and thus at odds with our ability to protect the infirm. This belief was reflected in Gov. Brown’s 2012 veto message. That these two communities, both comprised of disadvantaged groups, did not feel as though they could fight together is a sign of how our economy systemically fails to see the value of domestic work and to enable economic parity for vulnerable populations more generally.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Deborah Doctor, legislative advocate at Disability Rights California (DRC), who said requiring people who are disabled to pay overtime would be too much of a burden. “We’re talking about balancing the needs and rights of two low-income populations,” Doctor told RH Reality Check in March. “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.”

DRC’s opposition continued through the 2013 legislative term, even as most of the elements of the 2012 legislation fell away and the bill simply secured overtime for domestic workers, many of whom work 12-hour shifts—or longer—for low wages. In a letter dated September 19, 2013, to Gov. Brown, encouraging him to veto AB 241, Doctor wrote, “We support the concept of fair wages for domestic workers, but not at the expense of our constituents, people with disabilities, most of whom are low-income.”

Doctor’s letter also points out that some disabled employers would be subject to California’s new overtime law as well as the stricter regulations recently approved by the White House. The California law goes into effect January 1, 2014, a year before federal regulations go into effect. (While California’s law only applies to private families who hire domestic workers, the the federal regulations also apply to a state-funded program that supports some low-income people with disabilities. Concern about the cost of these regulations to the state’s program was cited as a reason why Gov. Brown vetoed the 2012 legislation.)

But, unlike the permanent federal regulations, California’s law leaves the state room to backtrack. R.M. Arrieta noted at In These Times last week that the California legislation “also includes a three-year sunset provision, which means the governor will set up a committee to review the success of the bill, and lawmakers will have three years to make it permanent.” This time period may help the state evaluate how the law is affecting people with disabilities before allowing it to become a permanent law.

The sunset provision was deemed a necessary tradeoff to pass legislation ensuring fair pay for women who earn little. Yet, the problem of “cost” is, frankly, a cop-out. The world outside of the domestic sphere has for nearly a century been required to abide by basic wage standards (though there are notable exceptions). People with disabilities should not feel as though they can’t pay fair wages because they are just too vulnerable. The economy has been designed to create such wedges, but with enough will it can be reformed.

And despite DRC’s stance, not all people with disabilities agree that paying overtime would cause hardships. Nikki Brown-Booker, a person with disabilities and an employer of domestic workers in California, believes overtime requirements could actually lead people with disabilities to hire more domestic workers for shorter shifts, so they obtain work from more clients but do not necessarily qualify for overtime. “My workers work long shifts and should qualify for overtime,” she told RH Reality Check. “In addition to that, long-hour shifts are not conducive to good care.”

In Brown-Booker’s opinion, there are multiple solutions to this issue that can ensure workers are paid adequately without compromising care.

And despite the legislative compromises, California’s AB 241—as well as the regulations the White House recently approved—demonstrates that the number of people supporting domestic workers’ rights is growing.

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