Getting the word out about the rights of domestic workers

CALIFORNIA — Two million households employ nannies, childcare providers, caregivers, and personal attendants in California alone, yet few domestic workers know their workplace rights.

Two million households employ nannies, childcare providers, caregivers, and personal attendants in California alone, yet few domestic workers know their workplace rights.

The Domestic Workers Coalition of California, a statewide network of organizations that advocates for the rights of domestic workers, is working with the Labor Commission of California to change that.  

The coalition knows that the population of those older than 65 is growing, and with that, that there will be more demand for domestic workers, and more need for protections.

The coalition leaders say they are trying to change employers’ mindsets around domestic work, including trying to educate about retaliation against domestic workers, and helping domestic workers collect on wage complaints. But implementing change can be tricky.

“The laws are very patchwork,” so it is difficult to inform domestic workers of their rights, said Sarah Leadem, a membership coordinator for Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which campaigns for the rights of domestic workers across the region.

“[Under California labor laws] some workers get one right; some workers get another — it’s riddled with different exclusions,” Leadem said. The laws are difficult to enforce because each worker qualifies for a different set of rights, she added.

As of 2016, SB-1015 under California law entitles personal attendants (see the California Department of Industrial Relations’s definition here) to overtime pay once they work more than nine hours in a day or 45 hours in a week. This law supplements domestic workers’ other rights, such as minimum wage, three days paid sick leave, and a three-year grace period to file wage complaints against employers. Workers can also file wage complaints regardless of their immigration status, said Silver-Taube of the Wage Theft Coalition.

Yet the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was signed into law in 2016, only covers personal attendants, a specific class of domestic workers, Leadem said.

Lack of organization and unionization in this sector of employment also contributes to why domestic workers remain among the most vulnerable in the American workforce today.  

“One of the challenges for domestic workers is ensuring that they know their rights and have access to avenues to enforce them,” wrote the State Labor Commissioner of California, Julie Su, via email. “Because they work in isolation, the challenges faced by many low-wage workers, including fear of retaliation, vulnerability associated with immigration status, language barriers and poverty, are exacerbated.”

Often, domestic workers hear about PAWIS (the Pilipino Association of Workers and Immigrants) through word of mouth, said Michael Tayag, the Secretary General for PAWIS.

But a variety of nonprofit organizations of the Domestic Workers Coalition are handing out “Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights” fact sheets in parks, public schools, ESF classes, legal clinics, and bus stops with routes leading from immigrant communities to wealthier ones, in addition to relying on word of mouth.

PAWIS also hands out fact sheets out at the four to six legal clinics it hosts every year and community events, including a big Filipino festival in San Jose that happens in July, said Tayag.

Across these community-based events and legal clinics, Tayag estimates that PAWIS handed out one to two hundred “Bill of Rights” fact sheets last year.

We hope to empower workers in the thousands, Leadem said.

Changing Employers’ Mindsets

For some organizations, changing employers’ mindsets is the first step toward ensuring that domestic workers’ rights are implemented.

The recognition that one’s home is another person’s workplace can be a big “stumbling block” that keeps people from learning about labor laws on their own, but it is “one of the biggest changes in mindset that ends up being a result of our work in the education we do,” said Lindsay Hong, a Bay Area organizer for the non-profit organization Hand in Hand.

Hand in Hand maintains a national network domestic employers and their employees, and advocates for policy changes for the rights of domestic workers.

The organization also provides sample employer-worker agreements and a checklist for domestic employers to see if their practices meet labor codes online.

The checklist prods domestic employers to build relationships with their employees.  After asking “Do you greet the worker you employ, ask about her family, show appreciation by saying thank you regularly, offer her a drink of water, etc?” the checklist advises employers to express gratitude to their employees.

“It’s amazing how far this can go in showing a worker that you value her labor,” says the checklist.

“Once [domestic employers] recognize that they are employers it’s much easier for them to then move to the next level which is, “Okay, what are my responsibilities in [this] role,” Hong said.

Outlawing Retaliation

But in light of President Trump’s election and his attacks on immigration in the last year, the private home can still be a hostile workplace for some.

Employers have threatened to report 78 percent of the survivors of domestic worker trafficking for deportation if they complain, according to one report from the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, which detailed findings collected from organizations that interviewed survivors of labor trafficking. Organizers suspect that threats like these may prevent domestic workers from filing wage claims in the first place.

Fear among workers has increased due to “stepped-up immigration enforcement” in the last year, wrote Su of the labor commission. “We have seen a four-fold increase in [retaliation] threats to workers from 2016 to 2017. So obviously, these factors further push workers underground.”

But domestic workers should know that they can file wage claims, regardless of their immigration status, wrote Su in an email.

With the “really big uptick in threats of deportation and threats to call the police” since President Donald Trump’s election, said Silver-Taube of the Wage Theft Coalition, the Labor Commission is now processing retaliation claims within 30 days.

“They’re giving them priority because they want to make sure that people aren’t afraid to file,” Silver-Taube said.

Collection on Wage Complaints

Advocates also view domestic workers’ collection on wage complaints as an important aspect of enforcing workers’ rights.

“A Fair Day’s Pay Act” (SB 588), which went into effect in 2016, aids this effort. The law empowers the California Labor Commission to hold employers individually liable for wage violations and to levy their accounts or property to carry out judgments. This helps domestic and other kinds of workers to collect on wage complaints that have been decided in their favor.

“But there’s still a huge backlog, so collecting can be still a problem,” Silver-Taube said.

The Labor Commission has now more power than ever to enforce wage judgments with SB 588, said Tayag of PAWIS, “but they also don’t have that many resources to actually carry it out.”

Honorata Nono, a 68-year-old caregiver for a 95-year-old woman living in Berkeley, is one beneficiary of having filed a wage complaint from her job as a live-in administrator at an elder-care home. She was on-call 24/7 in 2008, she said.

“I know we were abused but, for me, because… I lived in the place, [and] my food [was] provided, I thought ‘Oh, this is quite good,’” she said.

But after the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns visited the care home that she worked at to inform workers of their rights, Nono consulted with the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic of Golden Gate University School of Law to file a wage claim. She did not realize how much her employer owed her in wages until she consulted with the clinic.

“When I presented my case to the Women’s Employment Rights clinic, they said, ‘Oh, you can get [a lot] because you were really underpaid [and didn’t get] overtime, and meal breaks and rest breaks,” Nono recounted. The amount Nono ultimately received from her wage claim was “quite reasonable,” she said. 

Now Nono prefers her two jobs caring for two elderly people in their private homes to working at the care home. Nono cares for an elderly woman from nine to five and then goes to her next job at 10 p.m. There, she helps put an elderly man to bed and then sleeps at the house in case he gets up during the night.

“The people I am working with are very nice… I can sleep from five to seven hours because sometimes the old man will not get up, so I can sleep free,” Nono said.

Nono also now works as an organizer for Filipino Advocates for Justice.

“This time I’m quite happy,” Nono said.

Read the fact sheets in Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog or English.

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