California Women Domestic Workers Push for Bill of Rights Legislation

PHOTO: Domestic workers Amelia Barnachea (left) and Rosa Sanchez bang pots outside the State Building in downtown Los Angeles in support of AB 241 on March 7, 2013.

More than 100 domestic workers and their supporters banged pots and pans in downtown Los Angeles Thursday to demand basic labor protections, such as overtime and meal-breaks, afforded to the vast majority of workers.

The group of predominantly women workers voiced their support for AB 241, a bill being introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano that would make California the first state to join New York in adopting a "bill of rights" for domestic workers.

"We're tired of being humiliated and mistreated," said Rosa Sanchez, 57, a Honduran domestic worker of 16 years. "We work 16 hours [a day without] time to eat or overtime pay."

The bill's language has yet to be finalized, but seeks to extend domestic workers three paid sick days per year, worker's compensation, and, for live-in laborers, access to kitchen facilities and the right to sleep.

The bill is a pared down version of what was introduced last year as AB 889, which Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed citing concerns that the proposed law could unreasonably burden disabled, low-income or elderly individuals who may need around-the-clock care.

"[T]he Governor didn't sign it in 2012, but I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen again," said bill sponsor Ammiano of San Francisco. "Let's make sure that domestic workers have the basic protections that other workers have, and that every worker deserves."

The new bill has exemptions for low-income workers who can't afford to comply with the new requirements, according to the Huffington Post. It says one exemption will allow employers who need 24-hour care to give caretakers "on-duty" breaks, which enable employees to rest or have a meal while still watching employers.

A bill of rights would not only guarantee basic rights to domestic workers but also help protect them from abuse. Workers are exposed to abuse because of their immigrant background and status and economic vulnerability, according report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which surveyed 2086 domestic workers nationwide.

It found that 91 percent who encountered problems with their working conditions in the previous 12 months did not complain for fear of loosing their job and 85 percent of undocumented workers (23 percent of domestic workers) in the same position did not complain because they feared their immigration status would be used against them.

One in three reported working long hours without breaks and 1 in 4 live-in workers had responsibilities that prevented them from getting five hours of uninterrupted sleep, according to the report. Among live-in workers, 2 in 3 were paid below the state minimum wage. Overall, about 1 in 5 domestic workers were paid below minimum wage.

More than 90 percent of domestic workers are women and 67 percent are Latina according to an analysis by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Sanchez said that "out of necessity" she agreed to work $150 a week. For nearly a decade she worked from 5:00 am to 1:00 am, often without weekends.

Domestic worker concerns fit a broader problem of a workplace abuse that is seen primarily within the low-wage, high-immigrant occupations, according a report by the National Employment Law Project.

The weak labor market combined with the build-up of immigration enforcement provides employers with "tools to retaliate against immigration workers who seek to exercise there rights."

A survey of low-wage workers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles found that two in three experienced pay-related workplace violations in their previous week of work.

Farm work, another low-wage, high-immigrant occupation, has less than average worker protections and previous efforts to reform have been thwarted. Last year, a bill farmworkers that would have aligned their overtime and benefits with that of others was vetoed by governor.

The California Domestic Workers Coalition campaign says it will continue to push for a domestic worker bill of rights.

"We as women, as workers, they need to hear us," said Sanchez. "If not for me for the others that will follow. We have suffered so much."

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