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Maria Santiago, a domestic worker, at Mujeres Unidas y Activas' office in Oakland.

Proposed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights elicits varied opinions

on September 25, 2012

As Gov. Jerry Brown decides whether he will sign the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (AB 889), reactions to the bill and the prospect of monitoring and enforcing its stipulations —which include overtime pay, mandatory rest and meal breaks, and fair sleeping conditions for workers—remain mixed.

The bill, written by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, would make California the second state in the country, after New York, to require labor protections for domestic workers. AB 889 excludes babysitters under the age of 18 as well as family members, but applies to nannies, housekeepers, caregivers of the sick or elderly, and other domestic workers. It was approved by the Assembly 42-27 and the Senate 21-13.

Brown has until September 30 to decide whether to sign or veto the legislation. Some of the bill’s strongest local defenders include domestic workers coalitions and members of the labor force themselves.

“We don’t get the right pay, and we’re not treated well,” an Oakland domestic worker named Maria Santiago said in Spanish last week through a translator at the Oakland office of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, an organization for Latina immigrant women that concentrates on issues like immigration laws, workers’ rights, social services, domestic abuse and healthcare. “We’re not treated with dignity,” she said.

Farm and domestic labor share many similarities, said Santiago, a 57-year-old Mexican immigrant who has done both. She moved to Oakland in 1984 from the Central Valley, trading in farm work for caretaking and housecleaning. “One time, I went to go clean this house, and the woman wanted us to be there at 8:30 am to start at 9,” she said. “She didn’t want us to stop; we worked from 9 to 5 and she didn’t want us to take a single break. But I think just like that story, there are hundreds of stories.”

Objections from the bill have been raised from politicians and hiring agencies, including BANANAS, a non-profit childcare referral and support agency that was founded in part to help families in Northern Alameda County have access to childcare regardless of income. BANANAS program director Judy Kriege said that signing the legislation could hurt private families who need childcare services.

“It’s a bill that really doesn’t work when it comes to that kind of job,” Kriege said. “You can’t expect a family to know what to do when they hire a nanny who comes to their home when they’re at work, and then has to have breaks requiring them to leave the child.”

Kriege said that if the legislation is approved by the governor, it would also affect the counseling her staff provides to parents, as they would have to explain bill’s regulations and the new responsibilities required of employers.

“It may have an unintended consequence, making it harder to find domestic work,” she said. “It may backfire in terms of the people who want to work as nannies, because I think it may make some parents decide not to go the nanny route.”

Southern Californian Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said in a telephone interview that he believes the domestic workers legislation is “full of holes” and could potentially open up a new window for trial attorneys to sue on behalf of allegedly grieved workers for compensation. “No state agency is set up to handle any infractions or complaints,” Jones said. “This is just a mess. They don’t know where to start, and that’s the bottom line.”

According to a 2011 report by the San Francisco public health department, women comprise about 90 percent of domestic workers nationwide. Half of all domestic workers are immigrants. According to DataCenter—an independent research organization—between 2007 and 2009, maids and housekeeping cleaners encompassed the largest numbers of workers in private households in California with 91,969 workers. Personal and home care aides were second highest with roughly 76,000 workers. Childcare ranked third with approximately 25,000 workers.

Average wages for domestic workers range from $6.82 to $8.89 an hour, according to a 2007 report “Behind Closed Doors: Working Conditions of California Household Workers.” The survey also found that of the 244 people polled throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, half reported being the primary breadwinner for their families. About 70 percent of workers also noted that they supported family members in their home country in addition to their own families in the United States.

Many of the same arguments now being raised against the California bill were also debated in New York while lawmakers deliberated the state’s own domestic workers bill of rights, said Andrea Mercado, political director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas. But demand for the industry didn’t wane or suffer after it was passed, she said. Determining how the specifics of the law and its implementation would  be up to the California Department of Industrial Relations, which if Brown signs the bill, will have until January 2014 to develop enforcement provisions.

“It didn’t happen in New York, and it won’t happen in Oakland,” Mercado said. “This is a very necessary workforce; they take care of our elderly and our children. Employers already have to abide by worker protection laws like minimum wage, so making it standard across the industry isn’t too out of reach.” Employers concerned about increased salaries owing to overtime pay, for example, can simply opt to lessen their workers’ hours to choose to split the pay between multiple workers, she said.

“I think we know that our work doesn’t end the day we pass a bill,” Mercado said. “There will then be a lot of work to make sure that workers and employers are aware of their rights and responsibilities.”

Read the full text of the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and about its voting history in the Assembly and the Senate.

Read Theresa Adams’ article in Oakland North for more information about the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.


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