Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Hangs in the Balance

Lindsay Beyerstein

Every day, countless New Yorkers head off to work entrusting their children, their aging loved ones, and their homes to nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers. But these domestic workers, who keep the modern economy running, are denied most of the basic protections that other workers take for granted.

If the New York State Senate passes the proposed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the more than 200,000 domestic workers in New York State will cease to be legal second-class citizens. But recent upheavals in the New York State legislature threaten to derail the bill.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would be the first legislation of its kind in the country. The bill would modify state law to guarantee domestic workers overtime, sick days, statutory holidays, medical leave and a starting minimum wage of $12 an hour. More than 80 labor and social justice groups support the bill, including Domestic Workers United and the New York AFL-CIO.

The bill would help prevent the widespread abuse of domestic workers on the job. Domestic workers often labor under harsh conditions and are sometimes subject to harassment, assault, and abuse,” State Sen. Diane Savino, the first senator to sponsor the legislation, said in a press release.

Most people don’t realize that nannies and housekeepers don’t have the same rights as other employees. You might be surprised to learn that a maid who works for a hotel has rights that a maid who works for a family does not.

The discrepancy stems from a 74-year-old loophole in the National Labor Relations Act, the central piece of federal legislation that guarantees the right to organize and form a union. The Act set the rules for organizing and collective bargaining and created the NLRB, the body that adjudicates labor disputes and certifies new unions.

Domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the definition of employees” for the purposes of the NLRA. Unions have traditionally focused on large employers. When the NLRA was written, domestic servants were predominantly black. Domestic workers and farm workers were specifically excluded from the NLRA to placate Southern politicians who feared that expanding workers’ rights would upset the racial status quo.

Even the New York Times editorial board acknowledges that the NLRA exclusion is a relic of the New Deal.” Labor Justice, a national volunteer organization dedicated to reversing the exclusion of domestic workers and farmworkers, goes even further, calling the exclusion one of the last vestiges of slavery and segregation.”

According to labor historians, the low status of domestic workers is exacerbated because they do what has historically been classified as women’s work. Their concerns have historically been ignored by the mainstream labor movement, which has its roots in industrial unionism.

Because they work in private homes, their contributions are often hidden, ignored or dismissed as something other than work. Society tends to devalue childcare and housework that people do for themselves as non-work. So, it’s not surprising that the status of the job doesn’t rise when it gets subcontracted out to domestic workers. The personal services that domestic workers provide often contribute to the perception that domestic work is something other than a job.

In what other industry do employers describe their employees as literal members of the family? Many bosses don’t even think of themselves as employers.

No one has articulated a principled reason for denying nannies and housekeepers the same rights as other workers. The fact that they don’t already have these protections is a vestige of racism and sexism.

If the federal government can’t reform the NLRA, states like New York must act unilaterally. However, the prospects for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights dimmed considerably due to recent upheavals in the New York State Senate, where Democrats, who tend to support the bill, had commanded a slim majority.

On July 9, two Democratic state senators crossed the aisle, costing their party the majority. Democratic control of the senate was restored after intense pressure from labor groups and other constituencies, but the chamber is deadlocked at 31 – 31 on the bill.

Workers and their allies must keep up the pressure in order to prevent this piece of legislation from becoming a casualty of infighting in Albany.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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