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Housekeepers and nannies in Philadelphia may soon win basic legal rights

They would get paid time off and sexual harassment protections, to name a few.

Nannies don’t have basic legal rights under most US labor laws.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Thousands of housekeepers and nannies may soon get basic labor protections that most US workers take for granted.

On Thursday, Philadelphia’s City Council introduced a bill that would give domestic workers the right to earn the city’s minimum wage, overtime pay, paid rest breaks, and paid time off. It would also give them legal protection against sexual harassment, wage theft, and retaliation for the first time.

If the bill passes, which is likely under the city’s progressive leadership, Philadelphia would become the largest US city to extend legal rights to domestic workers.

The bill is just the latest effort in a nationwide push to lift up some of America’s most vulnerable and exploited workers. Nannies and housekeepers, who are overwhelmingly women of color and immigrants, have long been excluded from most state and federal labor laws because of institutional racism. But in recent years, domestic workers have started to demand equal rights, and it’s paying off.

New York became the first state to extend labor protections to domestic workers in 2010. Since then, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, and Hawaii have too. In April, New Mexico became the latest state to do so.

Philadelphia’s 16,000 nannies, caretakers, and house cleaners could be next.

Philadelphia’s proposed bill of rights for domestic workers, explained

One of the biggest problems nannies and caretakers deal with is the informal setup of their work. They usually find clients through word of mouth and make verbal agreements related to work hours and pay rates. Without the details in writing, household employers can simply change the terms whenever they want and fire workers on a whim.

The Philadelphia bill would require a legally binding, written contract between employers and workers.

For example, a family that hires a housekeeper to clean and wash clothes must have a written agreement that spells out job duties, scheduling, and hourly and overtime pay, and includes paid breaks.

Domestic workers would get 10 minutes’ rest every four hours and 30 minutes to eat every five hours. If they don’t get those breaks, their bosses must pay them for an extra hour of work.

Bosses must also give workers two weeks’ notice if they want to let them go, or one month’s notice for live-in employees. If that doesn’t happen, workers are entitled to severance from their boss.

And here’s another crucial element: Domestic workers would get the same legal protections from sexual harassment and discrimination that other workers get.

“Domestic workers frequently experience wage theft, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, threats to call ICE if we speak up about our working conditions, daily instances of racism and prejudice, and employers who refuse to pay and who barge into living quarters after work hours are done for live-in nannies and caregivers,” wrote Annie Johnson, a Philadelphia nanny, in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed published in March.

Johnson is a leader of the Philadelphia Domestic Workers Alliance, which is part of a national effort to mobilize an isolated workforce that’s often overlooked and exploited under the law. It’s also an attempt to gain economic security for one of the fastest-growing and lowest-paid labor sectors in the US.

Domestic workers are in high demand but have little leverage

Only one industry is expected to grow faster and add more jobs to the US economy than domestic work in the coming years: the renewable energy business.

After that, home health aides and personal care assistants are expected to be the fastest-growing occupations within the next decade — with about 1.2 million new positions added to the US economy between 2016 and 2026, according to the latest estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That spike is expected for two main reasons. First, the baby boomer generation is aging, and a growing number of families will likely hire aides to help care for them at home. Second, the expansion of Medicaid insurance under the Affordable Care Act has made it possible for more low-income families to cover the cost of home care services.

But even though domestic workers are in high demand, they are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, and most get no benefits. The median annual salary for a home health aide was $23,000 in 2017, slightly above the $20,420 federal poverty level for a family of three. About 88 percent of domestic workers don’t get paid time off or other benefits either.

Congress is largely to blame for this.

Congress intentionally left out domestic workers from US labor laws

When Congress first passed federal labor protections in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, they excluded two groups of workers: domestic workers and farmworkers.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), for example, excluded both groups from the right to earn the minimum wage or get overtime pay. Farmworkers and domestic workers were left out as a concession to Southern lawmakers, whose states were highly invested in paying low wages to personal servants and farmworkers.

At the time, that workforce was overwhelmingly black and Latinx, and excluding them from a minimum wage was intentional. Today, about a quarter of farmworkers and 67 percent of housekeepers earn less than the minimum wage. Their second-class status is directly tied to America’s legacy of slavery and racism.

Lawmakers later amended the FLSA in the 1970s to cover most domestic workers, but not live-in housekeepers and nannies. Farmworkers are still excluded from the law.

Both groups were also left out of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which gave workers the right to form labor unions and organize for better working conditions.

Then when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, domestic workers were left out again. That’s because the law didn’t include protections for workers whose employers have fewer than 15 employees. That means it’s technically legal for employers to sexually harass their nannies and housekeepers, or to discriminate against them based on race, religion, gender, or national origin.

The same thing happened a few years later, in 1970, when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The landmark labor law, which established a worker’s right to a safe and healthy work environment, didn’t extend that right to domestic workers and farmworkers.

This is not a tiny part of the workforce: About 2 million people in the US do domestic work, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

And while they continue to pressure state and local lawmakers to give them equal rights, home care workers also have their eye on Congress.

Domestic workers want to change federal law too

Nannies and home care workers have taken their campaign for equal rights to Capitol Hill. Hundreds of domestic workers have been traveling to Washington, DC, in the past year to talk to lawmakers about their need for federal labor protections. In April 2018, a group of them, led by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, met with Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA).

And the Democratic lawmakers listened. In November, Harris and Jayapal announced their plan to introduce the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which wouldn’t be that different from Philadelphia’s proposal. The congressional bill would close loopholes in federal labor laws that exclude domestic workers. It would also require employers to give them meal breaks, rest breaks, and some paid sick days. In addition, employers would have to establish fair scheduling practices and a system for workers to report sexual harassment.

“Passing this Bill of Rights will demonstrate that domestic work is not only work, but work that is critical to our economy and society,” wrote Harris, Jayapal, and National Domestic Workers Alliance director Ai-Jen Poo in a November op-ed for CNN. “We must extend protections to those who have been silenced and overlooked for decades.”

Those workers are still waiting for Congress to take action.