10:06 a.m. PDT August 10, 2015
National Labor Relations Act. Fair Labor Standards Act. Occupational Safety and Health protections. Civil Rights Act. Americans with Disabilities Act. Age Discrimination Act.
These are some of the many laws that explicitly exclude domestic workers. These laws bar domestic workers, specifically, from forming unions or bargaining collectively for wages and benefits. They exclude them from overtime provisions. They exclude them from government protections in their workplace.
That is about to change.
Oregon recently became the fifth state to enact a state-wide domestic workers bill of rights, know as the Oregon Domestic Workers’ Protection Act, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016.
Experts say the new Oregon law is going to make a significant change for domestic workers across the state by addressing these exclusions.
The Bill Itself
Senate Bill 552 was passed by the Oregon Legislature this session and was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown in June. It extends some very basic rights to the people who need it the most, said Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who introduced the bill in 2013.
“These really are such basic, basic protections,” Gelser said. “For ages, domestic workers have been explicitly excluded from basic work place protections.”
The bill creates new laws to protect domestic workers who are working with children or in the home — which extends to work done outside the place of employment.
For instance, under the bill employers cannot hold the employees’ passport as a condition of employment. The bill also extends protections from sexual harassment, and, for live-in workers, it allows them eight hours off a day so they can sleep, if they wish, and employers are required to provide them an adequate place that is safe and quiet for them to sleep.
It also requires that workers can prepare food of their choosing for their own health and religious beliefs. The employer doesn’t have to provide it, but they have to have a space where workers can access and prepare such food.
The bill will be enforced by the Bureau of Labor and Industries, who will be setting out the rules before it goes into effect in January. According to Lili Hoag of Family Forward Oregon, there was no official opposition testimony for this bill during the 2015 legislative session. She said there were some concerns about who would be covered and how the rules would be written to be fair for employers and employees, but throughout amending the bill, it received bipartisan support.
The bill will also help illustrate how many people the law will affect.
“We have worked with many women first hand and know that there is likely a large population of uncounted domestic workers caring for young people as nannies and caretakers in other people’s homes,” Hoag said. “Part of the importance of passing this law is to start being able to count these workers as a part of the labor force and to bring to light the issues they face as domestic workers.
“They are currently under-counted or not counted at all in our employment data or labor laws.”
Cristina Castro is a perfect example of the people affected.
Castro, 68, moved to the United States with her son in 2001. Although she had a job teaching in Argentina, Castro said it was a dream of hers to come to the U.S. since she was a young girl and the violence in her home country became too much for her and her son to continuously face.
“We were concerned about our personal safety,” she said. “My son had been assaulted by people with guns multiple times.”
After moving to the states, Castro held various jobs, most of which were domestic worker positions, ranging from being a nanny for young children and serving as a caregiver, to housekeeping.
Though Castro said she hasn’t had to face situations as difficult as others she knows, she did have jobs where she didn’t get any days off or where she had to deal with employers who were “biased against Latinos.”
For instance, Castro said she had one employer who told her that her Spanish-speaking friends couldn’t come over.
Now under the bill, domestic workers will have protection from workplace discrimination — something they were explicitly denied before.
“It’s very important for people in the community to know what the bill is about,” she said. “They need to know and understand their rights.”
Gelser said it is a very marginalized population who is affected, made up primarily of women of color with low-incomes, who cannot hire an attorney if their rights are violated.
In fact, much of the reason these people are discriminated against in previous laws centers around strong racial and economic prejudices. A report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance titled, “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work,” stressed the fact that today’s issues are in many ways lasting effects of historic racial divides.
According to the report, “Southern politicians were critical to the coalition that passed the (National Labor Rights Act) and other New Deal legislation. Securing their votes required an endorsement of the labor system in the South, which was dependent on the control and subordination of vulnerable, cheap, black labor.
“In the mid-1930s, most black workers in southern states were engaged in either farm labor or domestic work. Excluding these sectors from the protections of the (National Labor Rights Act) ensured that southern black workers could not form unions, reinforcing a racial regime of white domination, and a labor regime of extreme exploitation. Despite the fact that these exclusions originated in a patently racist compromise, these provisions of the (National Labor Rights Act) remain in force. Today, their effect is to set aside domestic workers as an excluded, unprotected class, undeserving of the rights afforded other workers.”
Addressing the Issues
Gelser said she was unaware of these issues until three years ago when she attended a symposium on the trafficking of women. She discovered the strong, common connection between domestic work in the United States and human trafficking, though she added that there are many domestic workers who come here by choice.
She said domestic workers really need the jobs they have, and that she believes they are wary of raising concerns about their rights out of fear of losing their jobs.
“I had never before really thought about the extreme vulnerability of these workers,” she said.
Gelser said the way workers are treated by their employers is a large part of what makes the workers so vulnerable.
Some people are employing workers under the table, she said, which means they aren’t paying taxes or Social Security.
She also said that the affection most employers have for the people they hire to do this work is another factor that can put workers at a disadvantage.
“The vast majority of employers are good employers who care about their employees and do the right thing,” she said. “But then some say, ‘I love my nanny, I love my housekeeper. They are like family, we don’t need laws.’ ”
Gelser said this is incredibly disempowering to the workers because these individualsaren’t members of the family. They are doing difficult work that is absolutely essential and work that has traditionally been undervalued, under-appreciated and under-respected, she added.
“These are the people that make all other work possible,” Gelser said. “These are the people who allow men and women to leave their houses and children and go to offices, schools and capitol buildings, because these people are doing the professional tasks of making sure their homes are safe and clean and taking care of the most important thing, I hope, in anyone’s life, which is their children.”
Yet, this work is among the lowest paid work in the country.
“We have forced these people to live in poverty while enforcing the idea that we have classified these people as members of the family,” she said. “We’ve loved them so much, that we’ve loved their rights away. The intention is good, but the outcome is devastating.”
Gelser said she and others are working with a handful of allies and advocacy organizations, such as Causa and Family Forward Oregon, to empower domestic workers, educate employers, workers and the general public, and make sure employers, in particular, are aware of their responsibilities and rights.
Hoag added that many organizations are working to help write and structure the official rules that will accompany the law in January.
She said the passing of the bill is an important step in the right direction.
“Domestic workers have for too long been left out of important labor laws. These women deserve the same dignity and respect on the job as other employees,” Hoag said. “We are pleased that the legislature took this step to extend some basic rights to domestic workers in Oregon.”
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