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We’re working to extend basic labor protections to domestic workers in Oregon. 

Domestic workers in Oregon work without some of our most basic labor protections — because they’re excluded from the labor laws. It’s time to correct that omission by extending some basic worker’s rights to domestic workers in Oregon, 95% of whom are women.

Who are Domestic Workers?

housecleanerimagedwDomestic workers are the people who care for some of the most vulnerable in our society, so that others may go out and work. They are nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for older and disabled people.

They do a job – providing care for our family members – that requires complex skills and a great deal of compassion, but their work is profoundly undervalued in our culture. Domestic workers do not receive some of the most basic protections provided by our labor laws.

What do domestic workers actually experience?

A recent study from the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) revealed that 35% of domestic workers report having worked long hours without breaks in the previous 12 months.[2] In addition, 25% of live-in workers reported that work responsibilities prevented them from getting five hours of uninterrupted sleep at night.[3] Many experience cultural and financial barriers to speaking out against abuse and fear that if they do they might be fired, have their immigration status threatened, or experience domestic care worker image-1further abuse or intimidation. These women often lack basic freedoms in their workplace (which is someone else’s home), like the ability to come and go freely from their place of employment, eat their own food, or to use their scheduled time off without having extra work.  Many domestic workers have families of their own and may be unable to see them for long periods or to provide them with the same care they are giving to their employer’s families.

Working in someone else’s home is by definition an intimate experience, and domestic workers straddle the line between the private and the public domain. Their workplace is often unseen and they can be isolated from their families and other workers. Their work is not measured in our GDP, but is some of the most valuable work that can be provided.  After all, they make sure our family members and homes are safe and well cared for. It is passed time to see domestic workers for what they are: the invaluable contributors to the shifting balance between work and family; they make other work possible.

What can we do now to extend labor laws to domestic workers?

Senate Bill 552 (Sponsored by State Senator Sara Gelser) establishes some basic protections for one category of domestic workers who work with children (it does not cover those who work with older and disabled people), such as a right to overtime pay, required rest breaks including at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, and protections from sexual harassment and physical violence. This is an important first step in establishing basic rights for domestic workers and valuing care work more broadly in our culture and economy. In the future, we would like to see these basic benefits extended to all domestic workers, including those providing care for elderly and disabled people.

It is time to shift the way we, as a society, value the important and necessary care work being provided by women, whether it is for pay or an unpaid service provided for your own family, it has economic value and should be treated as such. This is especially important for those women who work in the most intimate of settings, our homes, are unduly disadvantaged simply because they provide care for a living. Being employed as a domestic care worker in Oregon should never mean a person is not paid for their labor above and beyond a standard work week, that they are denied a full night’s rest, or that they should have to endure threats, intimidation or sexual or physical violence simply because the law – one many assume covers all workers – fails to protect them.

Why aren’t domestic workers already protected under the law?

Historically, domestic workers in the U.S. were slaves, forced to work in the homes of their masters under grueling conditions. Though slavery was officially abolished in 1865, a long series of political compromises were made to appease white employers in the South who wanted to maintain the cheap supply of domestic labor provided by African Americans for generations.[4] Over 70 years later, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act created the basic labor standards most workers enjoy today. The desire to maintain the use of cheap labor and a lack of value for “women’s work,” domestic workers were specifically carved out of that legislation and continue to be excluded from many of the critical protections that the Fair Labor Standards Act provides – including overtime protections, rest breaks, a minimum wage, and much more.

What that means in practice is most domestic workers in Oregon are hired without the safety net of a work contract, instead relying on verbal agreements with their employers. Because of the nature of the work, many employers may not even think of themselves as employers, instead seeing their domestic help as a de facto ‘family member’ – and they may not understand the need to provide a healthy working environment – one that allows employees to get the appropriate amount of rest, to be paid overtime, and to work in a safe workplace free of intimidation or sexual harassment.[5] Though Senate Bill 552 goes a way to correcting the intentional omission of domestic workers in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, other domestic workers in Oregon will continue to work with limited labor protections. It’s clear that after 75 years, Oregon’s domestic workers should experience the same fair treatment at work that every other working Oregonian is entitled to. We are glad to see that nannies and household staff will be able to have some basic protections under this new law.

 


[1] Data Center, data taken from the American Community Survey 2005-2009, provided to Family Forward Oregon by Jay Donahue on March 8, 2013.

[2] Burnham, Linda and Nik Theodore. ‘Home Economics: The invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work. The National Domestic Workers Alliance. New York, NY. 2012. http://www.domesticworkers.org/homeeconomics/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Andolan Organizing South Asian workers, CASA of Maryland, Domestic Workers United, Global Rights, University of North Carolina School of Law Human Rights Policy Clinic, Stefani Bonato, McKenna Coll, and Eric Tars. 2010. Domestic Workers’ Rights in the United States: A Report Prepared for the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Response to the Second and Third Periodic Report of the United States. Washington, DC: Global Rights. <http://www.law.unc.edu/documents/clinicalprograms/domesticworkersreport.pdf> (accessed March 20, 2013).

[5] Appelbaum, Laura D. Why a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights?. UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. December 2010. http://www.domesticworkers.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/ucla_report_cabor.pdf

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