Maid in America

Why haven't industry-wide standards been extended to California's domestic workers?

The Help, a hit film released this past summer, deals with discrimination and bad behavior toward African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi. Movie audiences were shocked by the treatment of women who worked for homeowners, earning a pittance, with no workplace protections and no recourse against vengeful, rude or racist employers. But times have changed since then. Right?

Not really, says Esmeralda Montufar, a domestic worker living in Sonoma County.

“We’re not given vacation pay, and we’re not given workers’ compensation,” says Montufar. “As a bare minimum, we want protections on our work and as human beings.”

As the president of ALMAS, a women’s action and solidarity alliance based at the Graton Day Labor Center, Montufar has spent two years campaigning for AB 889, a domestic workers’ bill of rights. Authored by California assemblymembers Tom Ammiano and V. Manuel Perez, the bill follows similar legislation enacted by the state of New York in 2010. If passed, it would grant nannies, housekeepers and attendants to the elderly and disabled the right to rest and meal breaks, limited overtime pay and workers’ compensation benefits to those who work fewer than 52 hours over a three-month period. (In-home supportive services workers are excluded from the bill.)

“Domestic workers historically haven’t been heard,” says Imelda Mateos, referring to the exclusion of domestic workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Back then, Southern lawmakers intentionally excluded domestic workers and farm workers—then predominantly African-American—from laws providing federal minimum wage and overtime protections. Fast-forward 73 years, and despite a 1974 amendment that extended coverage, many domestic workers still don’t have these rights.

“If the bill passes, at least employers will have more consideration in regards to us,” says Mateos, a domestic worker who moved to Sonoma County from Oaxaca four years ago. “Right now, people experience a lot of abuse from their bosses.”

Montufar relates a story about arriving at a regular housecleaning job to a note on the door stating that her services would no longer be needed, with no notice given. Others have had to work 24-hour shifts with no time allotted for a full night’s sleep.

“I speak about my experience because I think about the other women, too,” explains Montufar. “I don’t want anyone else to be in a situation like that—it’s an ugly feeling. What happened to me was bad, but things way worse happen to other women.”

Critics of the bill say that it could make care for the elderly and disabled prohibitively expensive, pricing out care for people who most need it. Speaking on KQED’s Forum last August, Jordan Lindsey, director of policy and public affairs for the California Association for Health Services at Home, argued that more time should be spent finding a balance between the needs of the individuals and the needs of caretakers.

“If this was a bill just about the overtime exemption, I think we’d be having a different discussion,” said Lindsey. “However, this is a bill about overtime exemption, along with sleep time, along with some rather strange provisions about kitchen use.”

Those that support the bill, like the California Domestic Workers Coalition, say the ultimate goal is to set clearer, industry-wide standards because the current rules are complicated, confusing and leave domestic workers vulnerable to abuses by bad employers.

“It’s an industry that’s never had any laws protecting it before,” says Maureen Purtill, an organizer at the Graton Day Labor Center, who has been participating in conferences in Sacramento. “By having a law that protects domestic workers, even on five or six points, it could have the side effect of a cultural shift, where we start to think of them as real workers and value the labor force.”

Assembly Bill 889 moves to the Senate floor in late January; it may gain even more traction due to the Obama administration’s Dec. 15 announcement of a plan to extend minimum wage and healthcare protections to home healthcare workers across the nation, the majority of which are women—92 percent, according to administration statistics—and immigrants.

“Immigrants that come to this country—we come and we go, and that’s just kind of how it is,” says Montufar. “But this kind of law is good, and it’ll be there for the people who come next, so that this work is recognized.”

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